Dr. James M. Slater has dedicated his entire professional life to promoting, developing, and optimizing proton therapy. He is known as the driving force behind the establishment of the world’s first hospital-based proton treatment center, which opened at Loma Linda University Medical Center (LLUMC) in 1990. What may not be so well known, however, is the magnitude of the work he did to prepare for that event, and the work he has done since then to make proton therapy even more beneficial to the patients it serves.
When Dr. Slater was a radiation oncology resident, in the mid-1960s, he was dissatisfied and distressed with the side effects that often resulted from radiotherapy as it was then practiced. Too many patients suffered unnecessarily, in his view, from too much radiation delivered to too much normal tissue. He resolved to do what he could to reduce unnecessary radiation exposure. Because he had intended to become a physicist before turning to radiation medicine, he knew that heavy charged particles could be a potential tool for reducing side effects, and was aware of the fledgling efforts to use proton therapy in physics research laboratories.
Through the 1970s and early 1980s, Dr. Slater investigated several modalities of heavy-charged-particle radiation therapy. He gradually came to see the proton as the optimal particle for routine radiation oncology, and by the mid-1980s began advocating for a hospital-based proton treatment center. He initiated contacts with Fermilab that led to a collaboration between LLUMC and Fermilab to develop a proton synchrotron and delivery system dedicated to treating patients.
Dr. Slater’s work did not cease after the first hospital-based proton treatment center opened in 1990. In many ways it was just beginning. Recognizing that an ongoing research program is fundamental to making proton therapy as good as possible, he spearheaded efforts to increase proton therapy research. The upshot of this research resulted in the expansion of the list of anatomic sites treated with protons as well as instituting innovative protocols to use protons, such as by means of hypofractionation and combination regimens.
Perhaps the most meaningful effect of Dr. Slater’s work is the benefits it has brought to patients. Judging by the comments he has received from patients, thanking him for the care and caring they received, that commitment still applies. Patients’ gratitude is manifested in many ways, including the formation of an advocacy organization, the Brotherhood of the Balloon (BOB). In appreciation for Dr. Slater’s work, the BOB established an academic chair at LLU in his name. LLUMC itself recognized Dr. Slater’s work in 2007, when the institution re-named the proton facility as the James M. Slater, MD, Proton Treatment and Research Center.
The impact Dr. Slater has had on the field of radiation medicine has benefitted many thousands of patients. He led the way in the routine clinical use of proton radiation. In a lifetime of service, pursued to serve others and yet beneficial to his colleagues, his institution, and the entire field of radiation medicine, he has embodied the best of what it means to be a physician.