Innovators and leaders in the field of radiation oncology honored with ASTRO Gold Medal awards
Three leaders in radiation oncology, including clinicians and researchers from Duke University, Massachusetts General Hospital and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, have been named recipients of the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) Gold Medal, the highest honor bestowed upon members of the world’s largest radiation oncology society. Benedick A. Fraass, PhD, FASTRO, Christopher G. Willett, MD, FASTRO, and Anthony L. Zietman, MD, FASTRO, will be recognized at an awards ceremony during ASTRO’s 58th Annual Meeting, to be held September 25-28, 2016, in Boston.
ASTRO awards its annual Gold Medal to individuals who have made outstanding lifetime contributions in the field of radiation oncology, including achievements in clinical patient care, research, teaching and service to the profession. This year marks the 30th consecutive year that ASTRO has presented this accolade, and the new awardees join an exclusive class of only 78 gold medalists selected over the decades from the Society’s more than 10,000 members.
“Drs. Fraass, Willett and Zietman, both as a cohort and as individual trailblazers in the field, represent the highest echelon of cutting-edge oncology research, of success training future generations of radiation oncologists and medical physicists, and of devoted and impactful service to their colleagues and patients,” said ASTRO Chair Bruce D. Minsky, MD, FASTRO.
Benedick A. Fraass, PhD, FASTRO, has dedicated his career to advancing the science of radiation treatment planning and delivery, with accomplishments that include developing three-dimensional treatment planning for routine clinical use, validating advanced uses of computer-controlled radiotherapy, and optimizing planning and delivery systems that allow more conformal and dose-escalated radiation doses while reducing the impact on nearby healthy tissue.
Fraass currently serves as Vice Chair for Research as well as professor and director of medical physics in the department of radiation oncology at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He also holds an appointment as health sciences professor in the department of radiation oncology at the University of California Los Angeles. Before moving to the West Coast, Fraass spent 27 years at the University of Michigan, where he led the radiation oncology department’s physics group and helped to create and then elevate the program to national prominence. Fraass was named the inaugural Allen S. Lichter Professor of Radiation Oncology at Michigan and remains an emeritus professor with the program.
Fraass’ work has enhanced the accuracy and effectiveness of radiation therapy (RT) for scores of patients facing a number of cancer types, including diseases in sites such as the liver and lung that may be difficult to treat. He and his group led efforts in the 1980s to understand and implement three-dimensional planning for radiation treatment and pioneered the introduction and validation of computer-controlled radiation delivery systems in the 1990s. As one of Fraass’ letters of support noted, clinical trials under his leadership have pioneered the “ability to combine technical and clinical research toward the goal of tailoring each treatment course in an optimal fashion to suit individual patients through their entire treatment.”
Concurrent with his work in tumor visualization and radiation treatment planning, Fraass was and continues to be instrumental in several patient safety initiatives, including founding the Radiation Oncology Safety Stakeholders Initiative and leading the development of the ASTRO Safety White Papers. Fraass is the current co-chair of ASTRO’s Integrating Healthcare Enterprise - Radiation Oncology (IHE-RO) Committee, which guides efforts to improve interoperability among the multiple technologies involved in treating patients with RT. He also serves on the Radiation Oncology Healthcare Advisory Council (RO-HAC), which is associated with the Radiation Oncology Incident Learning System (RO-ILS®).
Fraass’ record of service to the medical physics and radiation oncology communities crosses multiple organizations, initiatives and achievements. He has served on more than two dozen study sections for the National Cancer Institute and either organized or participated in more than 50 workshops, panels and symposia for scientific and professional organizations. Since joining ASTRO in 1984, Fraass also has participated extensively in teaching activities at the ASTRO Annual Meeting, delivering lectures on topics such as treatment optimization, quality assurance and patient safety.
Fraass’ commitment to education and mentorship is evident in the legacy of medical physics faculty members and researchers who excelled under his guidance as students, residents and junior faculty. When asked to reflect on his career in a recent interview, Fraass jumped almost immediately to the importance of his peers. “Most of what we do involves collaboration,” he said. “Whether it’s the Safety White Papers or the Michigan research on 3-D treatment planning, computer-controlled radiotherapy or dose escalation, these are very importantly group efforts. What strikes me is that it’s not me; it’s the way we were able to work together and accomplish a great deal.”
Fraass earned a Bachelor of Science in physics from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, as well as a Master’s degree and Doctorate in physics from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He also completed a fellowship in radiation oncology at the National Institutes of Health prior to joining the Michigan faculty.
Christopher G. Willett, MD, FASTRO, has improved the lives of many patients with gastrointestinal and other cancers through a career that has brought achievements in a number of interwoven areas. As one of Dr. Willett’s nominating letters explained, he is “a compassionate radiation oncologist fully committed to providing the very best possible care to patients, an innovative translational researcher who has made seminal contributions to the field, and a committed teacher, mentor and leader, whose tireless service has enriched the field of radiation oncology.”
Willett is the current Chair and professor of radiation oncology for the Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. He has served as director for clinical research and numerous other leadership roles with the Duke Cancer Institute. Under his leadership at Duke, the department’s clinical and physics faculty has doubled; he has developed a comprehensive division of medical physics, including a graduate program; and the clinical services have expanded to seven facilities in North Carolina and Virginia. Willett also established a department-supported clinical trial recruitment program that accrues 150 to 180 patients each year to investigator- initiated trials.
Before his move to North Carolina, Willett rose from assistant to full professor of radiation oncology at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Harvard Medical School in Boston in just over a decade. While at Harvard, Willett also served as director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Center and clinical director of radiation oncology at MGH and began his extensive involvement with the Radiation Therapy Oncology Group (RTOG). In a span of nearly 30 years he has served as Chair of the RTOG Gastrointestinal Cancer Committee and investigator for a number of trials in gastrointestinal malignancy. Willett’s contributions to clinical and translational research are many, whether pioneering intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT) to treat rectal and pancreatic cancers or demonstrating the potential of RT combined with anti-angiogenic therapy to fight a range of cancer types. For example, in 2004 he published a Nature Medicine article that has been cited more than 1,800 times, reporting an innovative trial combining preoperative RT and fluorouracil together with the anti-angiogenic antibody bevacizumab.
Willett also understands the importance of research in enhancing patient care. In a recent interview, he said, “The marriage of scholarly activities with clinical care should be seamless. We should provide our patients with state-of-the-art care by using basic and translational studies to guide future therapies, for example, and by promoting opportunities for patients to enroll in new clinical trials.”
Willett’s relationship with ASTRO began during his medical training at MGH, when he won the Society’s annual Resident Essay Award. He has represented ASTRO as Chair of both the steering and scientific program committees for the multidisciplinary Gastrointestinal Cancer Symposium and was named an ASTRO Fellow in 2011. Willett also spent several years as a senior editor focused on GI cancer for ASTRO’s International Journal of Radiation Oncology • Biology • Physics (Red Journal).
Willett received both his medical degree and Bachelor of Science degree from Tufts University in Boston. At Tufts, Willett happened to overlap with his father, who he names as the strongest influence on his decision to pursue this field. The senior Dr. [Bernard] Willett, while in his late 50s, left a successful practice in surgical oncology to pursue a career in radiation oncology, beginning with a residency in the same medical school where the junior Dr. Willett would soon matriculate. From his father, Willett says he learned “how valuable radiation therapy could be in helping patients.”
When asked to reflect on his career, Willett is quick to name the family members, mentors, colleagues, and students who helped drive and support him, expressing gratitude for their “positive influence” on his life and work. These include many individuals with whom he worked during his residency and clinical research fellowship in at MGH in Boston, in addition to his year as a surgical intern at Vanderbilt University.
Anthony L. Zietman, MD, FASTRO, has contributed to the science and practice of radiation oncology through decades of influential research on genitourinary (GU) cancers, active mentorship of future practitioners and faculty members, and thoughtful leadership at the helm of scientific journals and meetings in oncology. As one of his letters of support extolled, Zietman’s contributions to the field of radiation oncology are “important, sustained and wide-ranging,” and he is seen as “a consummate clinician, an outstanding teacher and mentor, and an innovative clinical scientist.”
In 1986, Zietman joined Harvard Medical School as a research fellow; thirty years later, he is Harvard’s Jenot and William Shipley Professor of Radiation Oncology and director of the school’s Radiation Oncology Residency Program. Zietman has also treated patients as a radiation oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital since 1991.
“Conscience-based care” is how Zietman describes the model of patient care he strives to practice and promote throughout the field. “We should practice with our conscience and from the evidence,” he said in a recent interview, stressing the importance for clinicians to couple “a devotion to evidence” with the requirement that they “treat patients with what they need, rather than what we need.” Similarly, his research often considers the value, as well as the effectiveness, of cancer treatment. He has attempted, for example, to clarify whether or not proton therapy fosters superior outcomes compared to other therapies for localized prostate cancer. He has strongly advocated that those with the lowest risk form of this disease be spared from treatment altogether.
Zietman has led multiple clinical trials examining the efficacy of therapy in GU cancers, including the use of androgen deprivation or radiation dose escalation for localized prostate cancer and chemo-radiation in bladder cancer.
Zietman’s dedication to improving patient care can be seen in the ways he integrates research with service. When the NCI initiated its GU Protocol Steering Committee, Zietman was named its Co-chair for Radiation Oncology, a role he continues today as he and the committee help coordinate NCI’s clinical trials effort for GU cancers. Zietman also helped establish the multidisciplinary GU Cancer Symposium, a joint effort of ASTRO, the Society for Urologic Oncology and the American Society for Clinical Oncology. He has been integral in helping write multiple national guidelines for prostate and bladder cancer treatment and editorials to give perspective on treatments new and old.
Since being named as Editor-in-Chief of ASTRO’s flagship journal, the International Journal of Radiation Oncology • Biology • Physics, in 2011, Zietman has made strides in diversifying the journal’s editorial board and editorial focus while simultaneously elevating the caliber and reputation of the journal. Zietman’s leadership with the Red Journal has proved a natural continuation of his service to ASTRO. After leading the program committee for ASTRO’s Annual Meeting and leading ASTRO’s Education Council for four years, he was elected President and Chair of the society by its membership. Zietman credits his time with ASTRO’s Board of Directors as the place where he learned the powerful role of policy in shaping health outcomes and the ability of specialty societies to influence these policies.
“In the clinic, I make a difference one patient at a time. But if you change policy, if you write guidelines or a cogent editorial, you can make a difference thousands of patients at a time,” Zietman said. “This is what I learned from ASTRO having been given the opportunity to shape and influence policy.”
When asked what drew him to the specialty, Zietman is quick to thank the mentors, including clinicians and scholars in both the U.S. and the U.K., who supported his career and, as he says jokingly, “have a lot to answer for.” Zietman earned a medical degree from the University of London, as well as a Bachelor of Arts degree from Oxford University. He completed multiple residencies and fellowships, including internal medicine at the Middlesex and Westminster Hospitals in London, radiation oncology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and then clinical oncology at the Middlesex and Mount Vernon Hospitals back in London.
For more information about ASTRO’s 58th Annual Meeting, visit www.astro.org/AnnualMeeting. For press registration and news briefing information for ASTRO’s 58th Annual Meeting, visit www.astro.org/AMPress.
Erin L. Boyle
ASTRO is the premier radiation oncology society in the world, with more than 10,000 members who are physicians, nurses, biologists, physicists, radiation therapists, dosimetrists and other health care professionals that specialize in treating patients with radiation therapies. As the leading organization in radiation oncology, the Society is dedicated to improving patient care through professional education and training, support for clinical practice and health policy standards, advancement of science and research, and advocacy. ASTRO publishes three medical journals, International Journal of Radiation Oncology • Biology • Physics (www.redjournal.org), Practical Radiation Oncology (www.practicalradonc.org) and Advances in Radiation Oncology (www.advancesradonc.org); developed and maintains an extensive patient website, RT Answers (www.rtanswers.org); and created the Radiation Oncology Institute (www.roinstitute.org), a nonprofit foundation to support research and education efforts around the world that enhance and confirm the critical role of radiation therapy in improving cancer treatment. To learn more about ASTRO, visit www.astro.org.