Using proton beams to treat cancer

Earlier today, CERN's Large Hadron Collider fired its first protons around a 27 kilometer tunnel. The news got me thinking of a QNX-based system that also fires protons — not to unlock the secrets of the universe, as in the case of the CERN collider, but to address a far more immediate problem: cancer.

To treat cancer, doctors have long depended on various forms of radiotherapy. While often effective, these techniques can damage healthy, cancer-free tissues that are located near or behind the tumor.

Enter proton therapy. Using this approach, a radiotherapist can precisely restrict cell damage to where the tumor is located, even if the tumor resides deep within the body. The radiotherapist can even "bend" the proton beam into the same shape as the tumor. This accuracy makes proton therapy useful for treating tumors located near vital organs. It can also reduce long-term effects sometimes associated with conventional forms of radiotherapy, particularly in children.

Mind you, there is a drawback: the equipment required to deliver proton therapy typically weighs hundreds of tons. Still, a growing number of proton therapy centers are opening in North America, Europe, and Asia.

One such center is the Midwest Proton Radiotherapy Institute (MPRI). Their proton therapy system (PTS), designed by Indiana University, consists of four main subsystems: beam delivery, dose delivery, patient positioning, and treatment control.

The dose delivery subsystem (DDS), which represents the business end of the PTS, runs on the QNX RTOS. It controls devices on the end nozzle and ensures that the patient receives the correct radiation dose. In fact, the DDS is responsible for performing several operations, such as manipulating the magnet controller, recording data from the nozzle’s beam detectors, and monitoring beam properties.

For more information on the PTS architecture, read this whitepaper.

For more information on proton therapy, check out this wikipedia article.

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