Chapter 06: A Virtual Radiation Therapy Machine: Innovative Education in the School of Allied Health Professions


Chapter 06: A Virtual Radiation Therapy Machine: Innovative Education in the School of Allied Health Professions



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In this chapter, Dr. Ahearn gives a vivid description of a virtual radiation therapy interactive simulator and its benefits for education. He also explains how the school relies on the faculty to be aware of technological advances that might enhance training.



Publication Date



The Making Cancer History® Voices Oral History Collection, The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center


Houston, Texas

Topics Covered

The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center - An Institutional Unit; Overview; Definitions, Explanations, Translations; Education; Building/Transforming the Institution; Technology and R&D; Professional Practice; The Professional at Work; Education at MD Anderson

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.


History of Science, Technology, and Medicine | Oncology | Oral History


Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Yeah. I’ve pulled this brochure -- actually it’s your newsletter -- out of my pile because you mentioned something in your message from the dean page that just resonated with the image of when the school first started and kind of moving by chairs to get into some little room to hold these little classes, and here in one of the paragraphs you’re describing a radiation therapy program, which is -- [now as you?]

, and I’m reading here from your message, it says, “Now incorporates a life size interactive teaching tool that simulates hands on training for our radiation therapy, diagnostic imaging, and medical dosimetry students. It’s the immersive IVERT system, a rare projection virtual radiation therapy classroom, the first one to be installed in the United States,” which shows how long you’ve come... I wonder if you could tell me more about this innovative teaching tool.

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Well, you have to see it to understand it. It is a virtual radiation therapy machine, a linear accelerator, with a patient on the table that you could put on the table, whether it’s a whole patient or a particular section. We have thorax, the head and neck, whatever area of the body that you’re interested in, and you can incorporate into that body CT scans. The body can be opaque and then suddenly you can make it transparent. You can see all the different organs. You can take the CT scans from an actual patient and the location of where the tumor is and place it into that patient laying on the table, and this is all in a virtual environment where the students and the instructor standing there. There isn’t anything there. It’s a vacant space, but they are seeing a table and a patient and a gantry all in the area. In fact, it’s always interesting to see when there is being demonstrated that the students with the goggles on that are seeing this in the three dimension in front of them will actually walk around the table when they’re moving to another side to get another view, and they could’ve actually walked straight across it, but it is so real that you feel like you’re going to bump into the table if you move forward. But it allows so many advantages, because, first of all, we’ve never before been able to show the location of the tumor where the patient, I mean the student could actually see the patient’s tumor in the body location in relation to the beam, because once the beam is turned on in the gantry and you design the treatment pattern, you can watch the beam and see how well with the multileaf collimator that you are treating the actual tumor area and sparing the other organs, like the spinal column and the other areas where you do not wish to get radiation, but you could actually visually see that, and students have never been able to do that before. And then, as the classes have grown, the only way we could do radiation therapy or any of our ionized radiation is to actually go into the treatment rooms, and we have some 20 linear accelerators here in the Institution. But as our patient load has grown, those treatment rooms are utilized from early morning to late night, so being able to get them free to be able to take students in and to utilize that equipment to do basic training has become harder and harder, and it interferes with the revenue stream of those instruments, because if you take one down to use for training, you’re not delivering patient care. And then the treatment rooms are perfectly adequate for the delivery of treatment, but they were not designed as classrooms, so therefore the space involved, you could only have four or five students in there at a time. And when we had less than ten radiation therapy students that was not a problem, but now we have over 40 students of radiation therapy, and the need for their clinical training component has put a burden on the clinic, but now we’re able to do all the basic training in classroom, utilizing a piece of equipment. And the students are using the pendant that is the same pendant that they will use in the treatment rooms to operate the gantry, to operate the table height, to do the laser markings on the patient for the particular therapy he’s going to get. Everything can be duplicated in a classroom of 85 students that before we had to do four or five students at a time in a clinical treatment room. So the difference is just daylight and dark, plus the advantages of being able to see anatomy in the patient that we could never have seen before, because you can add the lungs, you can add the liver, you can add the spinal cord, the trachea. Whatever you need to add anatomically you can put into this mannequin that’s laying there on the table that’s a virtual mannequin, and you’re seeing all of this, and then to take the same patient that they’re going to see in the clinic later and put that CT scan and show actually where the tumor area is in a virtual system, it’s... It’s just amazing. I mean, it’s the most wonderful teaching -- it’s revolutionized the way we’re teaching radiation therapy. And the dosimetry students, these are the students that use the physics and the math to calculate the port of entry, the level of dosage, what structures have to be passed through in order to deliver the right treatment dosage to the tumor area. Once again, before they have been operating in an opaque patient laying there, knowing the approximate location of the tumor, but really not being able to see it visualized, they can take their treatment plans and put it into this machine and actually see how effective they are in hitting the tumor that had before been hidden from them, but now is very clear with the CT scans that are in the patient while he’s receiving the treatment. So it is tremendously helpful to all of our areas of radiation sciences.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

When was the simulator acquired?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Last year. We had it installed in the fall of last year, and it was made possible by a gift to the Institution from the Kinder Foundation. And the piece of equipment, of course, is revolutionary, but the installation of it required a tremendous amount of physical alterations in the classroom in order to accommodate it, because the generator for the image creates so much heat that it had to have special air conditioning considerations made for it, and it was an expensive endeavor, but the Kinder Foundation very graciously provided that support for the Institution.

Tacey Ann Rosolowski, PhD

Is there some part of the School of Health Professions, some individual department that’s charged with the mission of keeping up innovations and teaching tools of this sort?

Michael Ahearn, PhD

Well, each of the program faculty are very aware because of their professional associations and professional continuing education in their areas, they are very much aware of the very cutting edge, and that was the way we became aware of the virtual system was through our radiation therapy faculty, who had seen this demonstrated. It’s made in the United Kingdom, and they saw a small demonstration of this at one of the professional meetings, and, knowing the pressures that we were under here, the limitations of the training for clinical areas for our students, brought this information back to us, and that was the genesis of the Kinder Classroom that we have now.

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Chapter 06: A Virtual Radiation Therapy Machine: Innovative Education in the School of Allied Health Professions