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Software Helps Target Radiation Treatment for Cancer
Doctors have been using radiation therapy as a treatment for cancer since the 1940s. The treatment has saved countless lives, yet has been somewhat imprecise until recently. The original method of treating a tumor with radiation used a linear accelerator that delivered radiation in rectangular beams. Doctors used lead blocks to prevent the beams from harming healthy tissue. The process was cumbersome and only partially effective. Surrounding tissue was often destroyed along with the tumor.
In the 1980s, a machine called an MLC, for multileaf collimator, was invented. The MLC had motorized leaves to disrupt the beam of radiation and focus it more closely on where it was needed. Still, the treatment was imprecise, lacking real-time control of the radiation intensity and direction.
Until the mid-1990s, most of the development of radiation treatment technologies focused on hardware. Varian Medical Systems decided that devising a more effective system would require a heavy investment in software development. Computing processors and hardware were advanced enough to precisely control beams of radiation, but the software to empower the hardware had yet to be developed. Varian transformed itself from a hardware company to a software company to get the job done.
Varian hired experts in programming embedded controls, user interfaces, treatment planning, and databases. It proceeded incrementally over many years to develop a trustworthy and powerful system called the SmartBeam IMRT (for Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy), which is now in use at thousands of medical facilities around the world.
The SmartBeam IMRT combines an x-ray and radiation technology into one device that rotates around the patient delivering radiation at precise intensities from any angle. The machine is the first that allows physicians to examine and treat a tumor at the same time. The on-board imager produces “high-resolution images of tumors and tracks changes in a tumor’s shape, size, and position… that when coupled with SmartBeam IMRT, allows clinicians to be even more precise when targeting tumors,” according to Computerworld. The magazine awarded Varian the top prize for information systems in manufacturing in its 2007 Computerworld Honors Program.
1. What role does software play in the SmartBeam IMRT medical system?
2. Why couldn’t Varian produce the SmartBeam IMRT before it did?
1. What additional safeguards must be programmed into the software that runs the SmartBeam IMRT that aren’t necessary in typical PC software?
2. How do you think the development of the SmartBeam IMRT launched Varian to the top of the market in cancer treatment systems?