Intensity-Modulated Radiation Therapy

Radiation Oncology: A Physicist’s-Eye View, by Michael Goitein.

In an earlier post, I mentioned Michael Goitein textbook Radiation Oncology: A Physicist’s Eye View. In Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, Russ Hobbie and I cite Goitein’s book when we discuss intensity-modulated radiation therapy.

In classical radiotherapy, the beam was either of uniform fluence across the field, or it was shaped by an attenuating wedge placed in the field. Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is achieved by stepping the collimator leaves during exposure so that the fluence varies from square to square in Fig. 16.45 (Goitein 2008; Khan 2010, Ch. 20)

It was originally hoped that CT reconstruction techniques could be used to determine the collimator settings at different angles. This does not work because it is impossible to make the filtered radiation field negative, as the CT reconstruction would demand. IMRT with conventional treatment planning improves the dose pattern (Goitein (2008); Yu et al. (2008)), providing better sparing of adjacent normal tissue and allowing a boost in dose to the tumor.

Goitein’s analysis of IMRT is full of insight, and I quote an excerpt below. Enjoy.


So far, we have implicitly assumed that each radiation field is near-uniform over its cross section; dose uniformity of a field within the target volume has, in fact, historically been an explicit goal of radiotherapy. However, the radical suggestion to allow the use of non-uniform fields was made some two decades ago, independently by Anders Brahme and Alan Cormack, fresh from co-inventing the CT scanner-and, in the context of π-meson therapy… (Cormack 1987; Brahme 1988; Pedroni 1981). Their idea was based on the judgment that, using mathematical techniques, an irradiation scheme using non-uniform beams could be found which would more closely achieve the ideal of delivering the desired dose to the target volume while limiting the dose to the normal tissues outside the target volume to some predefined value.

Brahme’s and Cormack’s approaches were motivated by the observation that, in CT reconstruction, one can deduce from the intensity reduction of X-rays traversing an object along a series of straight paths what the internal structure of the object is. By inverting the mathematics, one can deduce the intensities (pencil beam weights) of a series of very small beams (pencil beams) that pass through the object and deliver dose within it. This procedure leads to highly nonuniform individual fields which, in combination, deliver the desired (usually, uniform) dose to the target volume.

There are two very substantial flaws to the original idea. The first is that, when the problem is posed to deliver zero dose outside the target volume as was initially proposed, many of the computed intensities are negative — a highly unphysical result. The second is that there is no a priori way of specifying a physically possible dose distribution to serve as the goal of the optimization.

However, the basic idea of using non-uniform beams has proven enormously fruitful. A workable computational solution is to use optimization algorithms to iteratively adjust the pencil beam weights such that the resulting dose distribution maximizes some score function. The search is computationally intensive and therefore poses interesting technical challenges. However, the still bigger challenge is to find score functions which give a viable measure of clinical goodness. Increasingly, biophysical models of the dose-response of both tumors and normal tissues are being investigated and are beginning to be used as elements of such score functions. These matters are discussed in Chapters 5 and 9.

Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT), as treatments featuring non-uniform beams are called, has been most intensely developed for X-ray therapy. However, it is equally appropriate for other radiation modalities-including protons. With charged particles one has an extra degree of freedom. One can vary the beam intensity as a function of lateral position and as a function of penetration (energy).

Who was Michael Goitein? Below is an excerpt from his 2017 obituary in the International Journal of Radiation Oncology Biology Physics.

Michael Goitein was a visionary thought provocateur and is rightly judged to have been an exceptionally innovative and creative physicist in radiation oncology (Fig. 1). He was a critical player in the development of proton radiation therapy, with many of his advances widely used in current proton and photon therapy. His highly important and numerous contributions to medical science have been well rewarded with many important awards: Fulbright Fellowship, 1961–65; US Research Career Development Award, 1976–81; Fellow, American Association of Physicists in Medicine, 2000; Gold Medal of the American Society for Radiation Oncology, 2003; and Lifetime Achievement Award of the European Society for Radiotherapy and Oncology, 2014. Significantly, he was a cofounder of the Proton Therapy Co-Operative Oncology Group and served as the second president. Furthermore, he participated in many of its subsequent functions. In addition, Michael was an invited lecturer at a long list of national and international conferences and medical centers. He published 163 articles and 3 books that have positively affected the practice of radiation oncology (1). It must also be mentioned that he has authored 4 books of a personal nature, one of which is a book of his poems (2, 3, 4, 5).

To learn more, read his ASTRO interview.

Originally published at