Treatments and Technology

Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy


Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is an advanced mode of high-precision radiotherapy that uses computer-controlled linear accelerators to deliver precise radiation doses to a malignant tumor or specific areas within the tumor. IMRT allows for the radiation dose to conform more precisely to the three-dimensional (3-D) shape of the tumor by modulating—or controlling—the intensity of the radiation beam in multiple small volumes. IMRT also allows higher radiation doses to be focused to regions within the tumor while minimizing the dose to surrounding normal critical structures. Treatment is carefully planned by using 3-D computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance (MRI) images of the patient in conjunction with computerized dose calculations to determine the dose intensity pattern that will best conform to the tumor shape. Typically, combinations of multiple intensity-modulated fields coming from different beam directions produce a custom tailored radiation dose that maximizes tumor dose while also minimizing the dose to adjacent normal tissues.

Because the ratio of normal tissue dose to tumor dose is reduced to a minimum with the IMRT approach, higher and more effective radiation doses can safely be delivered to tumors with fewer side effects compared with conventional radiotherapy techniques. IMRT also has the potential to reduce treatment toxicity, even when doses are not increased. Due to its complexity, IMRT does require slightly longer daily treatment times and additional planning and safety checks before the patient can start the treatment than conventional radiotherapy.

Currently, IMRT is being used most extensively to treat cancers of the prostatehead and neck, and central nervous system. IMRT has also been used in limited situations to treat breast, thyroid, lung, as well as in gastrointestinal, gynecologic malignancies and certain types of sarcomas. IMRT may also be beneficial for treating pediatric malignancies.

Radiation therapy, including IMRT, stops cancer cells from dividing and growing, thus slowing or stopping tumor growth. In many cases, radiation therapy is capable of killing all of the cancer cells, thus shrinking or eliminating tumors.

A medical linear accelerator (LINAC) generates the photons, or x-rays, used in IMRT. The machine is the size of a small car—approximately 10 feet high and 15 feet long. The energy of the photon or x-ray, in the order of 10 millions of volts, is generated by the LINAC to penetrate the patient’s body to the tumor. During the 15 or so minutes of treatment, the patient is required to lie still on the treatment couch while the linear accelerator delivers multiple beams of radiation to the tumor from various directions. The intensity of each beam’s radiation dose is dynamically varied according to treatment plan. The patient usually will not feel any sensation while the radiation is on, but will hear noise from the machine, and may smell an odor from the electronic equipment, or see the warning indicator light. The noises and odors from the machine are normal. The patient will be in the room alone during the treatment period with constant monitoring from the radiation therapists from outside the treatment room.

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