Working with Radiation: Does it really give you super powers?

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1. SUMMARY

Hi - I’m Georgia and I’m a Medical Physicist. I have a Master’s degree in medical physics and I work in the radiation oncology department at the Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane. In radiation oncology, radiation is used to treat cancer. Medical physicists are experts in the safe use of ionising radiation and work alongside radiation oncologists and radiation therapists to safely and effectively deliver radiation treatments. 


A major project I’ve been working on is developing a more accurate system for measuring the radiation dose that is received by all different parts of a patient's body during their treatment. This is called in-vivo dosimetry and is really important because radiation affects different parts of the body differently. Alongside research, a big part of my role is clinical and I am responsible for ensuring the linear accelerators (Linacs: the machines that shoot out radiation) can safely and accurately treat patients.

2. BENEFIT

According to Cancer Council QLD, 1 in 2 Queenslanders will develop cancer in their lifetime (1). Radiation therapy, or radiotherapy, is a highly effective cancer treatment that can be used to treat many different types of cancer. Radiotherapy leads to a cancer cure in many cases and contributes to up to 40% of cancer cures world-wide (2). Radiation treats cancer by breaking the DNA strands in cells. If enough of the DNA is broken, the cell will die, and if this happens for every cell in a tumour, the tumour will disappear. 


Medical physicists work alongside radiation oncologists and radiation therapists to safely use radiation to treat patients. The job of a medical physicist is radiation safety, quality assurance and commissioning of new technologies. This involves regular testing to ensure all the equipment is producing the correct amount of radiation at the right energy, as well as making sure all the radiation therapy equipment meets international quality standards. We also monitor the radiation dose of staff and patients, and ensure treatment plans can be delivered by the machines. When new technology is introduced or equipment is updated, medical physicists are responsible for commissioning the system for clinical use. Alongside us, radiation therapists are responsible for planning the radiation treatments and delivering treatments to patients, and radiation oncologists are the doctors who prescribe the radiation treatment to the patient. 


My research on in-vivo dosimetry helps monitor the dose to critical organs during radiotherapy. In-vivo dosimetry is used to verify that a dose is high enough or low enough in a certain area, as required by the radiation oncologist. By improving the accuracy and precision of this system, the radiation dose can be measured with more confidence and the information from this can feedback into the system to further improve treatment planning. I’ve also conducted research on breast cancer treatments and on improving image quality during radiotherapy. 


Radiation treatment should be safe and accessible for all Queenslanders. To this end, regular research meetings take place between the state’s medical physics community to stay up-to-date in the latest technologies. Radiation treatment is a rapidly evolving area of healthcare and treatments are becoming quicker, more effective and have less side effects. It is important that these new technologies are not just implemented in some centres but are available all across our state and the medical physics community is helping achieve this. 


  1. https://cancerqld.org.au/research/queensland-cancer-statistics/fact-sheets/ 
  2. https://www.targetingcancer.com.au/about-radiation-oncology/benefits-and-effectiveness/

3. ENGAGEMENT

Australia is a world leader in radiation therapy research. My centre has Australia’s only publicly available Gamma Knife treatment: a radiation device specifically designed to treat brain tumours while avoiding healthy brain tissue. In 2019 my team and I gave several presentations on the Gamma Knife at the international conference: Asia-Oceania Congress of Medical Physics. I also presented research on how to more accurately model radiation dose delivery using treatment planning systems and how bolus (tissue-equivalent material like wax or jelly) can be used to modulate the radiation dose to certain areas of the body. 


In 2018 I presented research on improving image quality in radiotherapy at the Engineering and Physical Sciences in Medicine (EPSM) Conference held in Adelaide. This work has been accepted as a publication and is in the process of being reviewed. 


One of the most rewarding activities I am involved in outside of work is the CSIRO Scientists in Schools program. Through this program I have been paired up with the Queensland Academy of Science, Mathematics and Technology which I have an ongoing partnership with for science outreach and activities. I attend the highschool throughout the year and discuss my work with the students. I’ve even taken in a radiation monitor to see if we could find anything radioactive (spoiler alert: we could only find background radiation, which is everywhere!). 


I think there is a lot of fear and misunderstanding about the use of radiation in Australia and because of this I am always happy to talk about the risks and benefits of it. Radiation is not inherently good or bad, it is just a technology that exists that has both positive and negative aspects. When used safely and responsibly, radiation can bring great benefit to people’s lives. And does it really give you superpowers…? Well if it did I wouldn’t tell you ;)

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