My Proton Therapy Journey: Niek Schreuder

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Niek Schreuder, M.Sc. DABR, vice president and chief medical physicist, is a board-certified medical physicist at Provision Center for Proton Therapy in Knoxville.  He explains, in his own words, his career path into proton therapy.

I started my career in medical physics in South Africa in 1988 when I decided to change from health physics – where one tries to limit radiation to people – to medical physics – where one applies radiation to people.  In 1989 I joined the particle therapy program at the National Accelerator Center in Cape Town, South Africa, now called iThemba labs, and in September 1989 we treated the first patients with high-energy neutrons at that facility in Cape Town.  Soon after that we started developing the proton therapy system and treated the first patients 1993.  The proton facility in Cape Town was, and still is, a truly homemade and pioneering system and remains the only particle therapy facility in the Southern Hemisphere.  Developing that facility taught me the fundamental and basic principles of proton medical physics as well as the electronics involved in making the technology possible.

In 1996 Prof. Jean-Pierre Blaser from the Paul Sherrer Institute (PSI) in Switzerland, where the first proton pencil beam scanning treatments were done, visited the facility in Cape Town.  He expressed the vision that one day the majority of radiation therapy world-wide will be done with protons.  When he saw our disbelief he asked the question “why are you doing research in proton therapy if you don’t believe it will be used in the future?”  That’s when I decided to move to the USA to devote my life to furthering the development of proton therapy and more so making it available to more people.  I moved my family to Bloomington, Indiana, in February 2001 to become the lead medical physicist at the Midwest Proton Therapy Facility (MPRI) under the leadership of the late Dr. John Cameron.  We treated the first patient at the MPRI facility (now called IU Health Proton Therapy Facility) in the spring of 2004.  In 2005, I joined ProCure treatment centers as a founding member constructing four more proton therapy centers across the USA between 2007 and 2012.  When I participated in the opening of the Provision Center for Proton Therapy in Knoxville I realized that it was the 7th proton therapy facility I was involved in opening – probably a world record, but certainly true to the vision cast by Prof. Blaser in 1996.

It’s my honest belief that proton therapy is the next major step in the technological development of cancer treatments and will proliferate significantly in the very near future.  The availability and deliverability of pencil beam scanning makes this dream possible and today I am more convinced than ever that the vision casted by Prof. Blaser is attainable and will lead to a significant improvement in cancer cure rates across the globe.