Seldom do software engineers get to see their work save lives. But new software developed by Washington State University alumnus Thanos Etmektzoglou is making a difference for cancer patients.

For the past 13 years Etmektzoglou has worked at Varian Medical Systems in Palo Alto, California, to develop a software control system that allows for more precise delivery of radiation to cancerous tumors.

Radiation is used in cancer treatment, because it more negatively affects cancerous cells than healthy ones. Doctors work to provide sufficient radiation to kill the cancer cells, while keeping injury to the surrounding healthy cells and organs at a minimum. With some cancers, however, doctors may have to provide a lower dose of radiation than would be optimal to avoid damaging particularly vital or sensitive tissue and organs nearby.

Working with engineers who designed individual components of the system, Etmektzoglou’s software system ties together an array of X-ray beam generation hardware, microwave power, custom motors, encoders, controllers, and other technologies. These operate within Varian’s intensity modulated radiation therapy system (IMRT) to generate and radiation with precisely shaped and timed beams targeted at tumors. The elaborate motion control system pinpoints the beam, even allowing for the patient’s breathing movements.

The IMRT system is dynamic, rather than static, says Etmektzoglou. The treatment planning computer tailors the relationship between motions and dose. Each point in the body receives a radiation dose to exactly match the ideal prescription.

Because the IMRT delivery is more accurate, outcomes may improve dramatically.

The system Etmektzoglou developed was first used on a few patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York. Preliminary data from researchers suggest that prostate cancer patients receiving the more precise IMRT treatment have a significantly higher success rate than conventional treatments-from about 64 percent to 96 percent in studies completed so far. IMRT treatments also seem to lower the rate of complications-from 10 percent to 2 percent. More studies are underway. Cancer treatment success is usually measured in terms of five-year survival rates.

The medical field is adopting the technique and using it with other forms of cancer. Approximately 280 hospitals within 5,500 treatment centers worldwide use IMRT technology for about 10 percent of the cancer radiation treatments they perform. About 1,100 more sites are in the process of acquiring it.

While it’s not clear if such dramatic improvement in outcomes will continue, Etmektzoglou says the IMRT treatments are “at least as good as conventional treatments or better.”

With more than one million people receiving radiation worldwide each year, “every 1 percent [improvement] is a lot of people,” he says.

“I’m fortunate to be able to see an immediate result from my work.”

A native of Greece, Etmektzoglou came to the United States in 1983 to study computers. At the time he was an undergraduate student in physics, the use of computers was still relatively rare in his country. He fell in love with the new technology.

“I realized that a whole new world had opened up in terms of computation,” he said.

Etmektzoglou recently earned a “Special Achievement Award” from Design News magazine for his work, the first software engineer to be so honored. Along with the award, he received a grant, a portion of which he donated to the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Washington State University. He holds two WSU degrees-’88 M.S. Electrical and Computer Engineering, and ’88 M.S. Computer Science.