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June 21, 2004

Purdue engineers, IU physicians, West Lafayette firm work to improve radiation therapy

INDIANAPOLIS and WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Radiation therapy for treating cancer could be improved through the collaborative efforts of a Purdue Research Park high-tech company with Indiana and Purdue university scientists and research physicians.

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Researchers at Advanced Process Combinatorics Inc., Purdue University and the Indiana University School of Medicine have designed and refined a new technique that allows physicians to quickly customize treatment plans that deliver more radiation to tumors without causing extensive damage to surrounding or healthy tissue.

Radiation treatments are used in a large percentage of the more that 1 million cases of cancer treated annually in the United States. Worldwide costs of goods and services used in cancer treatment exceed $1 billion annually.

But Dr. Mark Langer, the project's lead investigator and a professor of clinical radiation oncology at the IU School of Medicine, said, traditionally, individualized radiation-oncology treatment plans have been very difficult and time-consuming to prepare.

"Our goal is to find a better way to deliver a maximum radiation dosage to individual tumors," Langer said. "This new technology has produced encouraging preliminary results."

Rather than having a single large radiation beam pass through the body, radiation through intensity modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is effectively broken up into thousands of tiny, thin radiation beams. With millimeter accuracy, these beams enter the body from many angles and intersect at the cancer. Although IMRT allows for very precise treatments, Langer said he believed the process could be improved if oncology radiation treatment planners had the capability to more quickly and effectively assign intensity levels to each of the smaller beams of radiation.

Four years ago, Langer began conversations about this problem with some of the scientists making novel optimization breakthroughs at Purdue. He contacted Ron Rardin, a professor of industrial engineering at Purdue, who thought some of the same techniques could be applied to radiotherapy.

Rardin brought Purdue Research Park company Advanced Process Combinatorics (APC) on board because he was aware that APC, while specializing in algorithm engineering, also had a former cancer researcher on its staff. Dr. Larry Baxter came to APC from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School where he was involved in applied research for cancer therapy modeling and optimization.

"Mathematically, what are the chances of this type of coincidence?" asked Joseph Pekny, co-founder of APC and a Purdue professor of chemical engineering. "Despite the interdisciplinary nature of the team, we have been able to speak the same language from the beginning by way of Dr. Baxter."

In recent years, the company has applied mathematical approaches in a wide range of endeavors, ranging from the scheduling of pharmaceutical manufacturing to the building of pallets for soda cans.

Pekny said he is excited about applying a similar technique to a project that can save lives.

In this case, researchers will apply their mathematical solution to IMRT by creating a software program that can assist the treatment planner in beam arrangement and intensity assignment. The research team plans to develop a product line of software solutions that will be updated continually to match the advances in radiation oncology-related machine tooling, control systems and computer imaging.

Along with faculty, the project team includes students at both Purdue and the Indiana University School of Medicine.

"We have attracted several outstanding students to our team," Rardin said. "Students love the idea of working on a project that demands state-of-the-art methodological tools and also impacts society."

The project team includes two students pursuing their doctoral degrees, two other graduate students, a medical school student and a medical school resident.

The work of this group has been funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. The group's progress also has been bolstered by the support of the Indiana 21st Century Research and Technology Fund. Total funding to date is $2.1 million.

"Radiation treatment planning may serve as a model for wider collaborations between the medical services and mathematical programming communities, leading to more refined operations and use of capital equipment and labor and accelerated processing of the information explosion in fields like pharmaceutics and biologic diagnostics," said Tony Armstrong, the 21st Century Fund's director.

"Within the life sciences arena, applied computational medicine and telemedicine are areas where Indiana can carve its own niche because these fields have no established leaders or strong competitors, and these startups require less initial capital investment."

Armstrong said the resources available in Indiana - Purdue, the IU School of Medicine, hospitals and the high-tech companies working in this area - have demonstrated a willingness to collaborate.

"This collaboration is a great example of the kinds of partnerships we need to foster in Indiana to improve human health and the economy of Indiana," said Charles Schalliol, president and chief executive officer of BioCrossroads, Indiana's life sciences initiative.

BioCrossroads is a public-private collaboration that supports the region's research and corporate sectors while encouraging new business development. "The development, in our back yard, of this cutting-edge technique to fight cancer is yet another example of the tremendous scientific talent base found in Indiana," Schalliol said.

Advanced Process Combinatorics Inc. was founded in 1993 by Pekny and Donald Miller. APC provides solutions to complex operations management problems in process scheduling, supply-chain optimization, project and portfolio management, pharmaceutical pipeline management, warehouse management and dispatch systems. The company has deployed a variety of commercial applications that have been successfully used by Fortune 500 companies.

The IU School of Medicine, the second largest medical school in the United States with more than 1,200 students, has nine medical education centers throughout Indiana for first- and second-year students. All students complete their third and fourth years at the Indianapolis campus. Nearly two-thirds of Indiana's physicians receive all or some of their education at IU.

Writer: Jeanine Phipps, media relations, Purdue Research Park, (765) 494-0748;

IUSM Contact: Mary Hardin, media relations, (317) 274-7722;

Sources: Dr. Mark Langer, (317) 274-1343;

Ron Rardin, (765) 494-5410;

Joseph Pekny, (765) 497-9969;

Dr. Larry Baxter, (765) 497-9969;

Anthony "Tony" Armstrong, (317) 233-4332;

Jennifer Cebalo, BioCrossroads media contact, (317) 635-9175;

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

Related Web sites:
Advanced Process Combinatorics, Inc.

Purdue University Home Page

IU School of Medicine Department of Radiation Oncology

Indiana University Home Page


Researchers at Purdue Research Park's Advanced Process Combinatorics Inc. along with Purdue University and the Indiana University School of Medicine scientists and engineers are designing software to assist radiation oncologists in assigning intensity levels to thousands of small beams targeted into tumors by linear accelerators (shown). This will enable physicians to deliver more radiation to tumors without causing extensive damage to surrounding or healthy tissue. (Courtesy of Rocky Rothrock, Indiana University School of Medicine Visual Media)

A publication-quality photo is available.

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