Researchers at UL pioneer sensor technology to improve radiation therapy

15 Apr 2013

Dr Sinéad O'Keeffe, sensor technology researcher, UL

A team of researchers from University of Limerick (UL) is pioneering a new type of sensor technology that uses using real-time monitoring, with the goal of ensuring more effective treatment for cancer patients who are undergoing radiotherapy.

Sensor technology researcher Dr Sinéad O’Keeffe is heading up a research team based at UL’s Optical Fibre Sensors Research Centre to develop the technology. The team is collaborating with researchers from the Galway Clinic, the Northern Ireland Cancer Centre and the University of California on the research.

According to O’Keeffe, who has been working on the development of optical fibre sensors for the past nine years, the project has made significant advances in the area of real-time patient monitoring during radiation treatment.

“Our sensor is smaller than current technology, as small as the diameter of a piece of thread,” she explained. “This allows it to be placed in critical organs, for example the lens of the eye, to ensure the organ is not exposed to high levels of radiation.”

Knowledge of the radiation dosed to critical parts of the body is necessary to make sure that side effects can be minimised, said O’Keeffe. “Our sensor will allow us get up close to tumours in a way that has never been achieved before.”

She said the sensor goes down to 200 microns (0.2 millimetres) so medical professionals will be able to use it internally to monitor the radiation at the exact location where it’s needed.

“They can also monitor critical structures where they don’t want radiation to be affecting critical organs, such as the bladder if they are treating cervical cancer,” said O’Keeffe.

Currently, dosimeters for monitoring radiation are external to the body.

“They are put on the body close to where the tumour is to the area that is being irradiated. That’s with an external beam. They use models to calculate how much the dose would be, based on these external sensors,” she explained.

Alternatively, treatments involve brachytherapy. This is where low-dose radiation seeds are implanted to treat tumours.

“For those treatments, they use models. They don’t have real-time information as to the amount of radiation that’s being exposed.”

O’Keeffe said this sensor will be small enough so that it can be placed internally in the same catheter that is used to implant the radioactive seeds.

“You will know exactly how much radiation the patient is receiving at all times.”

The research team is now preparing a patent as the goal is come up with technology to make the 2mm-diameter sensor even more minute.

“We have some fibres being fabricated at the moment to make these sensors much smaller,” explained O’Keeffe.

“We’re still a bit away from a final approved sensor, but we’re working towards it. I think it will bring a whole new dimension to monitoring in radiotherapy treatments,” she added.

O’Keeffe was recently awarded an early career award from the Sensors Council segment of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

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Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic