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Houston Radiation Oncologist Uses Video Game Technology To Zap Cancer

Armen Hareyan's picture

Cancer Treatment

For years, Dr. Brian Butler, radiation oncologist at The Methodist Hospital in Houston, would be the first to tell you that video games are a waste of time.

Shouldn't kids be reading, keeping their grades up and taking part in activities that keep them fit?

Butler now argues we have a lot to learn from those who immerse themselves in a world of video game technology. It is this technology that is revolutionizing radiation therapy for cancer. When an Ivy League college was unable to do it, he turned to a group of Dallas-based video game programmers in their 20s to create a system for him that takes targeted cancer therapy to another level.

Cancer therapy is now a video game, and the make believe shoot 'em up is not make believe at all. The enemy is cancer. The growth patterns of cancer are the "supply lines." And, because the program enables doctors to pinpoint the location of the cancer with the precision of a sniper rifle, it spares surrounding healthy tissue and cells from damage.

"The diagnostic radiologist, radiation oncologist and the computer gamers all came together to make this happen," Butler said. "Each piece of the puzzle was essential. This would have never happened if these three disciplines hadn't communicated. Methodist now has the first system in the world to target radiation in this manner."

Marrying more than 20 years of anatomical data from Houston radiologist Dr. L. Anne Hayman and three-dimensional computer gaming software, the program helps Butler and his team precisely analyze a tumor's location in the body and where they can and cannot deposit radiation.

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The computer program is a refinement of intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). IMRT, used for the first time anywhere at The Methodist Hospital in March of 1994, forever changed how cancer patients around the world receive radiation. Instead of a single radiation beam that treats the entire area around the tumor, IMRT uses a more precise multi-beam method that better pinpoints cancer cells in the body.

"At first, everyone thought it was absurd, and now everyone is doing it," Butler said. "It really took off."

The evolution of radiation technology has primarily involved the refinement of the weapon used against cancer, from the "shotgun" to the "sniper rifle."

"The other aspect is knowing where the lymphatic systems are, and understanding where nerves run in the body," Butler said. "Also, as a field, radiation oncology has no specific training in CT anatomy. This helps us overcome that problem by having all the information about the human body already in the system."

The computer gamers created an "outside the box" way of not only mapping the entire human body using Hayman's anatomical data, but also a way to bring in an actual CT scan of a sick patient. Once that data merges, a precise radiation treatment that considers the tumor size, location, growth pattern and stage of the disease can be administered.

"Not to minimize a very serious sickness we are fighting, but cancer treatment is now a game," he said. "I have a sniper rifle with a site, target areas, and the gamers created maps because we know the behavior of the enemy; we know how cancer spreads in the body," he said.

The sophisticated computer program works in tandem with Tomotherapy, a machine that