LSU Professor Aims to Improve Radiation Therapy to Save Lives

Published 12:11 pm Wednesday, February 15, 2023

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BATON ROUGE – More than half of cancer patients will receive radiation therapy. To improve radiation treatment outcomes for patients, the American Cancer Society has awarded LSU Associate Professor of Physics Rui Zhang a $786,000 grant for his research at LSU and Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center.

Zhang aims to improve upon a commonly used radiation therapy technique known as Volumetric Modulated Arc Therapy, or VMAT, during which a beam of radiation shaped to the tumor is delivered continuously as the treatment machine rotates. Traditionally, images of the patient’s anatomy are acquired before the VMAT treatment to determine the location of the tumor and its surrounding area. However, should the tumor move, or the surrounding area not be aligned the same way during imaging, the beam can miss the target, causing the treatment to be less effective, and possibly damage normal tissue, which can lead to secondary cancers.

“We are proud to support the work of Dr. Zhang and others who are working every day to enhance cancer care and move medical physics forward,” said Jonas Fontenot, president and chief executive officer, Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center. “His work through the LSU-Mary Bird Perkins collaboration is part of the Cancer Center’s commitment to bring leading-edge research and innovative treatment options to the Gulf South.”

Zhang seeks to make VMAT more efficient and reduce the room for error by introducing VMAT-Computed Tomography, or VMAT-CT, an imaging tool that utilizes therapeutic VMAT beams to provide a three-dimensional or four-dimensional mapping of the patient anatomy during treatment. The images would enable doctors to view the patient’s anatomy and assess dose information to adjust the treatment plan if the tumor moves, something blocks the beam’s path or any other issue that could cause the radiation beam to hit healthy cells instead.

Zhang said this concept was first proposed over 10 years ago by researchers in Europe, but technological limitations long stifled any serious advancements. After years of developing algorithms to improve image quality, Zhang’s team may be the first to develop the only VMAT-CT that is clinically applicable in the world.

“It occurred to me the huge amount of daily portal images during VMAT were not collected or utilized,” Zhang said. “These data do not require additional hardware, beam time or imaging dose, and could have been used for treatment monitoring and dose tracking. After reading the original VMAT-CT paper published in 2010, I believed this concept should be revisited, despite the obvious challenges. For most scientists, it is more interesting to pursue a significant and difficult question than a well-studied easy question.”

“Successful completion of this project will generate a convenient, low-cost, harmless, effective imaging tool and overcome a critical barrier to the urgently needed intrafraction image guidance for VMAT. It will afford a powerful way to safely deliver and escalate radiation dose, reduce possible toxicities and improve treatment outcomes. Millions of patients in the United States may benefit from this research, especially since radiation therapy is critical for cancer care and VMAT and other rotational radiation therapy is commonly prescribed,” Zhang said.

– Written by Joseph T. Bullard, LSU Manship School of Mass Communication