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Contact: Melanie Magara, NIU Office of Public Affairs
October 25, 2006
West Chicago, Ill. — Northern Illinois University today announced plans to build a world-class cancer treatment and research center in Chicago’s western suburbs that will provide state-of-the-art proton therapy to patients across the Midwest.
The university has received $3.3 million in federal funding to begin formal planning for a non-profit proton therapy center at the DuPage National Technology Park in West Chicago. The park is contiguous to the northern boundary of Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which in the late 1980s developed the first proton-therapy accelerator for use in cancer treatment.
Proton therapy is an advanced, highly effective form of radiation treatment, utilizing proton beams to treat cancer. Non-invasive and painless, it is a preferred treatment in many adult and pediatric cancers. Although the treatment is covered by numerous insurance plans, it is currently unavailable in Illinois.
“The proton therapy center will be a major resource for cancer patients in the Chicago area, Illinois and the Midwest,” NIU President John Peters said. “The center will also establish the state as a worldwide leader in cancer treatment and research using particle accelerator technologies that were pioneered right here in Illinois.”
U.S. Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, whose district includes the proposed site for the NIU proton therapy center, helped secure planning funds for the facility.
“While thousands of patients have realized the benefits of this cancer treatment, proton therapy is currently unavailable in Illinois,” Hastert said. “Yet this advanced technology was realized at Fermilab. The NIU plan, in a real sense, will bring this resource back home to Illinois.”
The university now is seeking state and federal funds to cover roughly half of the estimated $120 million project cost. Other funding is expected from private equity financing, private sector partners and NIU bonds.
Once funding is secured, the university will break ground in 2008 on a facility with four separate treatment rooms and dedicated research space in a complex totaling about 100,000 square feet of space on 13 acres of tech-park land. Plans call for the center to begin providing treatments in 2011 with an eventual patient load of about 1,500 patients per year.
The center will deliver proton therapy for the treatment of pediatric, prostate and head/neck cancers, as well as for treatment of patients suffering from certain ophthalmologicdisorders. NIU officials say the facility will advance research while educating and training health professionals in the growing field of particle therapy.
“We’re very excited about this plan,” DuPage County Board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom said. “NIU’s planned cancer treatment and research center fits perfectly into the vision we have for the DuPage National Technology Park as a place that fosters innovation. It will represent a model of collaboration, bringing together the expertise of government, academia and our region’s medical communities. It also will bring to the forefront new technologies that will vastly improve the quality of life for people in our county and far beyond.”
NIU, which frequently collaborates with both Fermilab and Argonne National Laboratory, has been building a program in medical physics and related health practices.
Two years ago, the university revived the neutron therapy cancer treatment program at Fermilab, and the NIU Institute for Neutron Therapy there now treats several types of cancers with concentrated neutron beams.
With planning funds now available for a proton therapy center, NIU officials will formally begin contacting Illinois’ regional medical centers, hospitals and radiation oncology physicians to develop collaborations and affiliations with the future proton therapy treatment and research facility.
“The mission of our university is to serve the region, and in this venture, given its cost and scope, the region is best served through collaboration and cooperation,” said Cherilyn Murer, a member of the NIU Board of Trustees and chair of its subcommittee on proton therapy. “We want to make available the best treatment option for many kinds of cancer. We hope to give oncologists a new weapon in the fight against the disease. And we want to provide Chicago’s top medical schools and allied health programs with new and important training and research opportunities.”
Proton therapy is the most precise and advanced form of radiation treatment available today, according to the National Association for Proton Therapy (NAPT). Conventional radiation often radiates healthy tissue in its path and surrounding the tumor site. In contrast, proton therapy more efficiently targets the tumor, thus leaving intact the surrounding healthy tissue and organs. Patients experience m inimal side effects, if any.
The treatment is used on tumors that are localized and have not spread to distant areas. It is now the preferred treatment option in many pediatric cancers, according to the Children’s Oncology Group that met in Chicago in April of 2006.
“Proton therapy has been recognized for more than four decades in the U.S. as the preeminent form of radiation therapy,” said Dr. Allan Thornton, medical director of the Midwest Proton Radiotherapy Institute in Bloomington, Ind.
“ Traditionally reserved for paraspinal and tumors of the brain, head and neck as sensitive structures, technology has advanced to facilitate its usage in the radiation community at large and for more common tumors,” he added. “Originally pioneered at Harvard in 1961, additional proton centers in California and Indiana have paved the way for research and development of new treatment protocols using proton therapy over the last decade. As a result, thousands of patients in the U.S. have been treated using proton therapy.”
Thornton and George Coutrakon, director of the proton accelerator operations group at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California, are serving as chief consultants on the NIU project.
Using protons for cancer therapy was first proposed in 1946 by Robert R. Wilson, who later in life would become Fermilab’s founding director. In the 1980s, Coutrakon, then a physicist at Fermilab, assisted in building and assembling the world’s first hospital-based proton treatment system for Loma Linda University Medical Center. Its proton therapy center opened in 1990.
Today there are only five proton therapy facilities operating in the United States and just over a dozen worldwide.
The NIU plan also is receiving support from leading Democrats in Illinois. “The NIU proton therapy research and treatment center will offer new hope to patients and enhance Illinois’ position as a leading provider of cutting-edge health care technologies,” U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin said.
Added U.S. Sen. Barack Obama: “I commend the leadership at NIU for seeking to make this life-saving technology available in Illinois. I fully support the project and look forward to working with NIU to make this plan a reality.”
NIU officials estimate the proton therapy center, when fully operational, will employ about 150 workers, create an additional 150 jobs in the region and generate more than $1 million a year in state and local taxes.
“In addition to being an important resource for patients, the proton center will be a boon for the local economy,” said Jack Lavin, director of the State Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. “A facility of this magnitude will create high-tech jobs and a multitude of opportunities for researchers and students entering health-related professions. It also will reaffirm the Chicago region’s reputation as one of the nation’s premier areas for health care and biomedical research.”