Skip to Content

Steady as She Goes

When Steven Dubowsky saw the details of Massachusetts General Hospital’s (MGH) planned proton beam therapy center several years ago, he immediately realized that its high-tech robotic apparatus for positioning patients was not nearly precise enough.

Dubowsky, a robotics expert at MIT and an advisor to the MGH facility, spent the next two and half years solving the problem. By writing an elaborate algorithm that compensates for imprecision inherent in the equipment and designing an array of sensors to detect the different sizes and shapes of patients, Dubowsky and coworkers at MIT improved the system’s accuracy by an order of magnitude. When the MGH facility, which will treat patients with inoperable brain tumors, opens within the next year, it will use software for the patient positioning apparatus based on Dubowsky’s work.

Proton treatment is favored over conventional X-ray radiation in treating some tumors precisely because it can target cells far more accurately. “The goal [of the facility] is to point a beam of radiation at the tumor and avoid treating nearby material,” says Michael Goitein, MGH’s project director. At least three other dedicated proton centers are being built in the United States. “I’m sure they’ll use this or similar software,” says Goitein.

While the facility’s initial plans called for targeting the proton beam with an accuracy within a half-millimeter, Dubowsky says early tests confirmed his hunch: The system, which is being built by Ion Beam Applications, a Belgium-based company, was actually achieving accuracy no better than 5 millimeters.

Dubowsky holds his forefinger and thumb slightly apart. “That’s about 5 millimeters.” Then he closes the gap, nearly touching his finger to the thumb. “And that’s about 0.5 millimeters.” It’s not a huge difference. But it could be the difference between life and death.

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station
Workers disinfect the street outside Shijiazhuang Railway Station

Why China is still obsessed with disinfecting everything

Most public health bodies dealing with covid have long since moved on from the idea of surface transmission. China’s didn’t—and that helps it control the narrative about the disease’s origins and danger.

crypto winter concept
crypto winter concept

Crypto is weathering a bitter storm. Some still hold on for dear life.

When a cryptocurrency’s value is theoretical, what happens if people quit believing?

individual aging affects covid outcomes concept
individual aging affects covid outcomes concept

Anti-aging drugs are being tested as a way to treat covid

Drugs that rejuvenate our immune systems and make us biologically younger could help protect us from the disease’s worst effects.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at customer-service@technologyreview.com with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.