Proton therapy innovator gets hero's treatment at Loma Linda center

The Press-Enterprise

LOMA LINDA - Calling him a selfless innovator, Loma Linda University Medical Center named its renowned proton center Sunday after the physician who helped pioneer the technology that has aided more than 12,000 patients in their battle against cancer.

James M. Slater, MDWith more than 250 people braving blustery wind outside the medical center, 11 people on the hospital roof dropped a banner to reveal the new sign for the James M. Slater, MD, Proton Treatment and Research Center.

"Today is a major milestone in the history of this organization," said B. Lyn Behrens, president of Loma Linda University. "It is a time to celebrate innovation. You, Dr. Slater, are our superstar."

The proton therapy uses a precise form of radiation to treat cancer and reduce the adverse effects typical with standard radiation treatment or surgery. More than 150 people are treated each day at the center, the first of its kind in the nation.

As the afternoon ceremony began, a video tribute to Slater played on large flat-screen televisions. Patients praised the technology for helping them successfully battle cancer while maintaining active lifestyles.

The hospital's top executives, professional golfer and CBS Sports announcer Ken Venturi, and other dignitaries joined in praising Slater.

Praised for Humility

"It has been a blessing and I will always treasure the friendships I have made here," said Venturi, who was treated for prostate cancer with the proton treatment. "Dr. Slater, you are the most humble man I have ever known."

Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Redlands, who helped secure millions of dollars in federal funds to help launch the treatment program, said in a video message that Slater's work was a "miracle, breakthrough idea" that put Loma Linda on the map.

"Indeed," Lewis said, "Loma Linda is a leader in the country and in the world in this field."

The center was the first hospital-based proton treatment facility when it opened in 1990 and until 2003 remained the only one in the United States.

Slater, 78, of Rancho Mirage, is vice chairman of Loma Linda University's radiation medicine department and director of its radiation research laboratory.

He recalled in a telephone interview Friday that he had to battle stiff opposition when he proposed in 1985 that Loma Linda University build the proton accelerator to be used to treat cancer patients.

'Everybody Was Leery'

"Everybody was leery," he said. "That's not quite accurate. It just seemed like that. I think the primary reason was, they knew it was going to be very, very expensive. They thought it might fail, although there was never a doubt in my mind."

What he proposed was using protons from the nuclei of hydrogen atoms to focus energy on a narrowly defined, fixed point within the human body, thereby reducing collateral damage during cancer radiation treatments for everything from brain to prostate cancer.

"When X-rays enter a patient, they give up most of their energy in the skin and the first two or three inches of tissue," he said. "When the tumor is deeper than that, and most are, the tumor gets less radiation from the beam than the normal tissue."

He said he wanted to find a way to do more damage to cancerous tumors than to the patient's healthy tissue.

"If patients are golfers, they'll continue golfing. If they're hikers, they'll continue hiking through their treatment," Slater said.

Overcame Skeptics

To make it happen, Slater said, he had to persuade skeptical, cost-conscious university administrators and board members to spend what would eventually amount to $150 million on a facility that until then had been used only in experimental physics research laboratories.

"The people in administration had so many complaints. (They said) it was going to rob the university of its funds and make it difficult for other departments to grow," Slater said.

He explained the science as best he could and brought in prominent physicists to support his case. But in the end, it was a trip he arranged for a large number of university administrators and board members to the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago that turned the tide.

"They had the expertise of the world there," Slater said. "They had the largest accelerator in the world. We were going to have the smallest. They said, 'Of course we know how to do it. Look what we've done here.' "

Loma Linda installed three 96-ton gantries and used a network of electromagnets -- eight of them weighing 5,000 pounds each -- to bend the proton beam and deliver it on target. The work took five years to complete.

"The thing that makes you so pleased with it is the patient responses," he said. "It hasn't been until the last three or four years that I have been able to sit back and look at what has happened and see how much it has been appreciated."

That includes the appreciation of officials who once opposed the project.

"Gradually, they have seen that it has added a great deal to the strength of science" taught at the university, Slater said, "and to the finances and patient satisfaction."

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