Co-creating innovative precision cancer treatment

‘We need to see the cancer targets we are treating – otherwise we cannot treat them accurately.’ That thought initiated 18 years of collaboration resulting in a device that introduced a new era in radiation medicine.

The idea came from Professor Jan Lagendijk at the University Medical Centre in Utrecht (UMC Utrecht) in his pursuit to increase precision in radiation therapy. Increasing the precision of how the radiation beam hits tumours makes it more effective and limits the risk of damaging nearby healthy tissue. And it’s far easier if you can see what you are aiming at.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) produces detailed images of the organs and tissues in the body. Using these images, a radiation oncologist can see the difference between malignant and healthy tissues, and even find areas within tumours that are most aggressive. Traditionally, an MRI of the tumour was taken before radiation therapy, followed by treatment of the tumour using a linear accelerator (linac).

Professor Lagendijk’s idea was to combine these technologies, integrating a high-quality MRI machine with a state-of-the-art linac. Swedish company Elekta took on that technological challenge and has advanced the field of oncology with equipment that allows clinicians to clearly see the tumour and surrounding healthy tissue while the linac delivers radiation.

‘My first response was that it was a crazy idea,’ says Kevin Brown, Distinguished Scientist at Elekta. ‘No one had ever been able to combine these technologies.’

The crazy part of the idea was that these two technologies are a poor match if not compensated for. The linac does not work if exposed to a magnet, and MRI machines are equipped with highly powerful magnets. Also, a linac creates a lot of interference with the magnet that could severely disturb image creation.

A collaboration was formed between teams from UMC Utrecht, Elekta and Philips for the MRI technology. It took seven years to produce a concept that proved the idea was feasible, and another ten years to create the new machine, the Elekta Unity MR-Linac. This technology marks a new era in the field of radiation therapy. It enables unprecedented precision and accuracy in cancer treatment and allows radiation therapy to be adapted to daily changes in the patient’s anatomy.

Today, the system is available in many countries around the world, and a close collaboration and sharing of data between academic hospitals globally will accelerate the use of this ground-breaking technology, benefitting countless patients.

‘The MR-Linac is like my glasses. Once I’ve put them on, I never want to take them off again,’ says Lagendijk.

Elekta is a Swedish company bringing together science, technology and clinical intelligence to revolutionise cancer care. For almost five decades, Elekta has been a leader in precision radiation medicine.

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