Department of Radiation Oncology Enters Year 50

In 1925, the GE 200 KV X-ray treatment is the first machine at the University of Minnesota, when the department was only a division within the Department of Radiology.

Although this month marks 50 years in existence for the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Minnesota Medical School, its life pre-dates 1970 when it started as a division within the Department of Radiology in 1925.

“It was in the era where if you wanted to treat patients with radiation, you started out as a radiologist and got ‘on-the-job’ training in a radiology department. There were no boards. Every radiologist knew a little bit about therapeutic radiation, and radiologists could practice as a therapeutic radiologists if they chose to,” said Kathryn Dusenbery, MD, professor and department head since 1999. “As the field became more specialized and ways of measuring and delivering radiation became more sophisticated, it was clear that it should be a stand-alone specialty.”

Dr. Dusenberry is the second-ever department head. The first—Seymour Levitt, MD—served in the role for 29 years from 1970 to 1999 under the previous department name: The Department of Therapeutic Radiology-Radiation Oncology, which was changed to the Department of Radiation Oncology in 2012 by a U of M Board of Regents’ vote.

In 1970, after Dr. Levitt’s appointment as department head, he immediately recruited Chang Song, PhD, to lead the Radiobiology Lab Section, who went on to have a distinguished career in the study of the vascular effects of radiation and remains an active Emeritus Professor to this day. Dr. Levitt also recruited Faiz Khan, PhD, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota at the time, to lead the Medical Physics section.

Education—Honoring Some of the Oldest Physics and Medical Residencies in the US

“Dr. Khan had the correct belief that in order to successfully deliver quality radiation treatments, you had to train good physicists,” Dr. Dusenbery said. “Initially, medical physics training was ‘on-the-job training,’ where the current physicist would take on a junior apprentice physicist and train them as best they could, but the training wasn’t necessarily comprehensive.” 

Dr. Khan’s vision was to mirror the medical residents’ experience, where physics trainees completed programs that exposed them to critical areas of medical physics. From that belief, Dr. Khan and Dr. Levitt, developed the oldest physics residency in the country, which later in 1991, became the second-ever accredited physics residency. In addition, in 1984, Dr. Khan published the most widely used textbook on Medical Physics, “The Physics of Radiation Therapy,” now in its fifth edition. 

The department also started one of the first medical residency programs in the country. Now, six residents rotate through more than three sites in the Twin Cities metro area during their four-year residency program.

“One of the very first residents was Dr. Chung K. Lee, who started out as a radiologist, then was one of the very first radiation oncology residents at the University of Minnesota,” Dr. Dusenbery said. “After residency, she joined the faculty in 1976 and served as clinician, teacher and researcher for more than 30 years.”

Patient Care—Expanding Therapies and Provider Locations

The first home to the department was in the basement of the Mayo Building “across from the morgue,” Dr. Dusenbery pointed out. “The radiation equipment included an El Dorado cobalt unit, a linear accelerator, Toshiba simulator and a first-generation computer system. The department grew from there, moving to a luxurious space in the basement of the new University Hospital in 1985 (now M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Medical Center) where it remains today.”

During Dr. Levitt’s tenure, he recognized a need to expand the department’s clinical footprint beyond University Hospital, so he established their first satellite site in St. Paul with the help of United Hospital.

“Not that far after, leaders from Hibbing [Minn.] approached Dr. Levitt and wanted to help him build a radiation site in their town. It’s still part of the Fairview system today,” Dr. Dusenbery said.

As Dr. Dusenbery assumed the role of department head, that growth continued. One of her first opportunities was to help the Minneapolis VA Health Care System recruit radiation oncologists and physicists and to utilize their hospital as a training site for radiation oncology residents. Soon thereafter, a satellite clinic in Wyoming, Minn., adjacent to the Fairview Lakes Hospital, opened in 2004. The M Health Fairview University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital also houses a small “pediatric only” Radiation Oncology department, which is the only department dedicated to pediatric radiation in the state. 

The Department of Radiation Oncology has been the first in Minnesota to adopt many new technologies as well, including the first to bring in intensity-modulated radiotherapy treatments to its clinics in 2000 and the first to establish a stereotactic body radiation therapy program. In 2004, they were the first to install and use a tomotherapy unit, and most recently, they upgraded to a Gamma Knife Icon that dramatically improves patient care for those with brain tumors—again, the department was first in the state to do so.

“The field of radiation oncology is really dependent on technologies,” Dr. Dusenbery said. “We try to stay on the cutting-edge, but it is a fast-moving field.”

Today, the department remains as the leader in Minnesota for gynecologic brachytherapy. And, they continue to expand—a new clinic in Maple Grove was added in 2007, and two radiation oncology departments at St. John’s Hospital and Woodwinds recently joined the M Health Fairview Oncology Service Line.

Research—Discovering Ways to Improve Patient Care 

Fifty years from now, Dr. Dusenbery hopes that radiation is no longer needed to fight cancer—a shocking stance for anyone in the field, let alone a department head. But, her hope comes from a place that is focused on patients and optimistic about the development of better therapies for cancer treatment. 

“As researchers design more targeted therapies and when cancer can be diagnosed at its very earliest stages, my hope would be that radiation is not needed. That would be what I really want,” Dr. Dusenbery said.

Until then, she keeps her team focused on finding new ways to improve patient care by revitalizing the clinical research program in the department. Stephanie Terezakis, MD, began as vice chair for research in 2019.

“She is a fabulous mentor for the junior faculty,” Dr. Dusenbery said. “In addition to her own research projects, she brings experience at grant writing and publication success.” 

One of Dr. Terezakis’ research projects studies the use of special radiation-resistant video goggles during treatment. These goggles distract a child with an entertaining video during treatment, which hopefully will prove effective at keeping pediatric patients still and avoid the need for anesthesia. Similarly, Eric Ehler, PhD, an assistant professor in the department, along with Christopher Wilke, MD, PhD, have a 3D-printing laboratory where they develop custom devices that aid in the delivery of radiation, either through immobilization or repositioning.  

“It has been my privilege to serve in this department for 30 years and to have seen many changes. We have a great team,” Dr. Dusenbery said. “From my count over the last 50 years, the University of Minnesota has trained over 80 medical residents, 30 physics residents and hosted rotations in radiation oncology for countless medical students interested in the field of oncology. I am very proud to have been a part of it.”

To help celebrate the 50th anniversary, click here to visit the Department of Radiation Oncology website.

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