Normal tissue often gets caught in the crossfire during radiation therapy. Damage is caused by the high-energy beams of radiation used to kill tumor tissue–particularly when the patient’s breathing causes the tumor to shift.
To better track a tumor’s position in real time and adjust the radiation accordingly, researchers at the University of Alberta in Canada have combined a linear accelerator with a magnetic resonance imager. Today in Anaheim, CA, at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, researchers will present evidence that a device that combines these technologies can accurately track and irradiate a moving target.
Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays from a medical linear accelerator to damage tumor tissue and treat nearly every type of cancer. In the United States, half of all patients with cancer receive this form of treatment, which typically requires 10 to 15 sessions lasting from about 15 to 30 minutes each. In order to make sure the entire tumor is irradiated, doctors have to irradiate a margin of healthy tissue around it, which leads to side effects including nausea, pain, and skin-tissue damage. In between sessions, the healthy tissue regenerates, but the tumor does not. One way to minimize the side effects is to lower the radiation dose and increase the number of sessions, sometimes to as many as 35.
“We would like to decrease the margins and increase the radiation dose, in order to control the tumor better without side effects,” says Gino Fallone, director of the medical physics division at the University of Alberta department of oncology.
Another challenge is posed by tumor movement during treatment. Tumors in the lungs and the prostate especially may move by about two centimeters during treatment. Current radiotherapy deals with this challenge by combining the radiation source with a computed tomography (CT) scan. This helps doctors reduce damage to healthy tissue, but CT scans are not very good at showing soft tumor tissue, and they are too slow to track tumor movement in real time. Fallone’s group has turned to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which provides crisp pictures of soft tissues such as tumors, in the hopes of doing better.
Until now, it hasn’t been possible to use MRI to guide radiotherapy. This is because MRI machines and the linear accelerators that supply high-energy x-rays for radiotherapy interfere with each other. MRI uses a strong magnet and pulses of radio-frequency waves to excite and read a signal from protons in the water molecules inside soft tissues in the body. Medical linear accelerators also use radio-frequency pulses, in their case in order to accelerate electrons through a waveguide toward a metal target. When the electrons hit the target, high-energy x-rays come out the other side; these x-rays are then aimed at tumor tissue. If these two machines are in the same room, the magnetic field from the MRI interferes with the waveguide, preventing the electrons from being accelerated, and the radio-frequency pulses from the linear accelerator interfere with the imager’s magnetic field, degrading picture quality.