With virtual reality, radiation therapy students learn about proton therapy
Deborah Lynn Blumberg
Think virtual reality is just about gaming and movies? Think again.
This fall, radiation therapy students at MD Anderson are slipping on virtual reality goggles that create a simulated radiotherapy treatment room where a virtual patient awaits treatment.
Using a new 3D program, the students are practicing delivering proton therapy, which sends a high dose of radiation into the patient’s tumor with pinpoint accuracy. Unlike standard radiation treatments, proton therapy targets the specific shape, size and location of a tumor, sparing nearby healthy tissue and organs from damage, and avoiding potential health complications down the road.
Hands-on practice in delivering proton therapy
But despite proton therapy’s advantages, few radiation programs teach it, and when they do, it’s usually through books and discussion rather than with hands-on training. But now, MD Anderson has invested in a new 3D technology that is training its radiation therapy students how to deliver proton therapy. It’s the first school in the world to do so.
“This is completely revolutionizing the way we teach,” says Shaun Caldwell, associate professor and Radiation Therapy program director in MD Anderson’s School of Health Professions. “It will allow our students to have hands-on experience before even walking into our Proton Therapy Center.”
MD Anderson’s Radiation Therapy program – one of the largest in the country – is the only program in the country that has fully integrated proton therapy into its curriculum. After graduating, students have the skills needed to work in the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center as well proton therapy centers across the world. The new 3D proton therapy learning module boosts students’ confidence and skills when they’re called on to deliver proton therapy in the real world, Caldwell says. It’s a safe and effective way to learn without putting patients or costly equipment at risk.
“Students practice hands on, but they have the benefit of a real patient not being on the table,” says Caldwell. “There’s no safety or comfort issue for the patient.”
An immersive experience
Students who step into the 3D training room see a life-sized patient projected on the wall. The students – who are working toward their bachelor’s degree in Radiation Therapy – take the controls and practice delivering a proton therapy treatment using a simulated version of the therapy’s nearly 200-ton machine. The tightly controlled beam requires the utmost precision.
“We can look inside the simulated patient and see where the beam is traveling as it goes through the body,” Caldwell says.
Students learn how to control the beam and spot organs they need to avoid.
“This unique way to learn is allowing my classmates and me to practice hands-on with proton therapy equipment, and is preparing us for the day we’ll deliver this type of radiation therapy to actual patients,” says Jenna Casper, a senior in the Radiation Therapy program.
As true-to-life as proton therapy gets
Andrew Dimmitt, a supervising radiation therapist in the MD Anderson Proton Therapy Center, is thrilled students are using the new 3D proton therapy module. Dimmitt supervises all the center’s radiation therapists who help train students.
“Students often are overwhelmed when they first use a proton therapy machine,” he says. “But this new virtual reality module is really helping.”
The new technology complements current 3D software MD Anderson students already use to hone their skills in traditional radiation therapy. Over a decade ago, the cancer center built a fully immersive 3D radiation therapy simulator.