The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre


Developing the next generation of cancer radiation therapy

A team of researchers led by Professor Martin Ebert from The University of Western Australia and Director of Physics Research at Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital is using the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre’s resources to develop safer and more efficient methods of cancer treatment through radiation therapy. The project is studying radiation detector response to high-energy X-ray beams used in the treatment to better determine potential risks and develop improved treatment technologies.


Team member Mr Ben Hug says that recent advancements in cancer treatment technology have resulted in the ability to deliver radiation with a higher level of accuracy and precision than ever before.

However, the increase in complexity increases the risk of error and difficulties in verifying the treatment delivery, which could compromise patient safety.

According to Mr Hug, the main computational challenge is that a very large number of histories (treatment case examinations) must be simulated to render the required statistics. The time taken to analyse a history depends on the complexity of the geometry through which that history is being simulated and the different energy cut off values that can determine how long a particle is tracked before it is ‘killed’. This research requires a large number of histories, specifically regarding lower energy particles and their associated energy deposition. Running these computational simulations on a desktop system would take an impractical length of time due to the amount of data and necessary software capabilities.


The proposed solution to this problem is to introduce a device located between the patient and the radiation source, which will monitor the radiation beam as it is treating the patient. This would comprise a flat-panel digital imager that can provide real-time images of the radiation passing through it.

“By comparing the resulting images against the expected image, the amount of radiation and its variation in time can be assessed against that planned,” says Mr Hug.

“Any detected difference will indicate an error in the delivered treatment that can be corrected before the patient’s next treatment.”

“The detector will also be simulated in a computational environment so that its response can be understood and methods selected to optimise its response over the range of measurement conditions,” says Mr Hug.

Simulation of intensity modulated radiation therapy beams on patient from varying angles produced using Geant4 Monte Carlo package on Fornax. Image courtesy of Ben Hug.

Simulation of intensity modulated radiation therapy beams on patient from varying angles produced using Geant4 Monte Carlo package on Fornax. Image courtesy of Ben Hug.


According to Mr Hug, the project involves acquiring a commercial flat-panel imaging system and undertaking measurements on clinical linear accelerators to characterise the system’s response under typical conditions.

Ultimately, the end goal is to produce a well-characterised device that can be used to monitor the radiation beam in real time, reducing the quality assurance burden of these advanced techniques, and expand their safe and effective use across larger numbers of patients.

The novel scientific outcomes from this project have proven to be invaluable, especially considering this type of research has not been done before. This work has aided in gaining an understanding of a fundamental physics concept, which can be challenging to measure. The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre helped both in terms of providing staff to get the code packages installed and running, and also by providing enough compute power to obtain the necessary results.

Top image courtesy of Varian Medical Systems, Inc. All rights reserved.

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