Revolutionary Cancer Treatment Minimizes Damage to Healthy Tissue

Luigi Tremolada, SIDeA

"The flexibility of the PXI architecture coupled with the capabilities of LabVIEW and the fantastic performance of NI RIO solutions helped us control an advanced deep cancer treatment facility based on hadrotherapy. The application of accelerated proton and carbon beams to a wide spectrum of deep tumors opens new perspectives for patients with respect to surgery or traditional radiotherapy. LabVIEW opens exciting perspectives to developers of these new applications."

- Luigi Tremolada, SIDeA

The Challenge:

Maximizing destruction of cancerous tumor cells while minimizing healthy tissue damage in patients.

The Solution:

Using National Instruments technology to advance a unique, more accurate form of cancer treatment, hadron or proton therapy, where accelerated particle beams such as protons or carbon ions can precisely target deep-seated cancer cells.

About 90 percent of tumor treatment successes are due to the efficacy of surgery and radiotherapy. The more familiar forms of non-invasive cancer treatment, chemotherapy and radiation, can have a crippling effect on the human body with severe damage to both healthy and tumor cells alike. The use of accelerated particle beams is a step toward developing more targeted and effective cancer treatments that spare healthy tissues from being damaged, which is critical when cancer develops near vital organs in the body.



Although hadron therapy has been practiced in many centers since the early 1950s, recent advances in the technology has accelerated research on the technique at the Italian National Center for Oncological Hadron therapy (CNAO), a clinical facility located in Pavia, Italy created and financed by the Ministry of Health to supply hydrotherapy to patients across Italy. Depending on the particular formation of each tumor, oncologists must frequently adjust the physical characteristics of particle beams to optimize the efficacy of the procedure, and this requires a precise control system. By aiming the energetic ionizing particles accurately at the targeted tumor, less energy is deposited into the healthy tissue surrounding the target tissue.


The Technology

When selecting technology for the control system, CNAO management preferred to invest in a complete control system from a European company, which led to the partnership with National Instruments Alliance Partner SIDeA. SIDeA is a technology-based company oriented to client support that is known for expertise in developing control and data acquisition systems for physics experiments.


Administering hadrontherapy is complex and requires nearly 300 devices networked together to control the operation of the machine as well as access to the room itself. For secure access to the treatment rooms during the emission of nuclear radiation, a safety interlock system was developed using the NI LabVIEW FPGA Module and NI PXI hardware. The system to create and control the actual particle beam requires Windows user interfaces connected to real-time and FPGA-based devices for control. NI LabVIEW system design software helped simplify this problem by integrating and abstracting the complexity of these multiple heterogeneous computing devices in a single development environment.


Timing and synchronization is a critical need for safely creating and controlling the beams. To meet the demanding 100 µs resolution needs, a unique Ethernet-based messaging protocol was developed using the LabVIEW Real-Time Module and PXI. For the more strict 50 ns resolution needs, we used a fiber-optic network with dedicated PXI modules.



Directing the beam at the tumor requires systems to prepare the beam, then measure and control beam intensity and position while distributing it evenly across the tumor. These systems, developed with LabVIEW and real-time NI PXI and NI CompactRIO FPGA-based hardware, measure beam intensity every microsecond and beam position every 100 µs with 100 to 200 micrometer accuracy, depending on the need. This beam controller system delivers the accurate measurements, real-time control, and data visualization needed by the scientists operating the beam.


Developing an open architecture using NI hardware and software meant challenges that might arise from a project based on commercial off-the-shelf products were properly addressed. The flexibility of the PXI architecture, coupled with the capabilities of LabVIEW and the reliable performance of NI hardware using the LabVIEW RIO architecture, helped to quickly meet the customer’s requests with a flexible and innovative solution.



After completing dosimetry and radiobiology tests with proton beams, CNAO obtained the authorization to start treating patients. Statistics from the Italian Association of Radiotherapists and Oncologists estimate more than 3 percent of Italian radiotherapy patients (more than 3,000 new patients per year) will be treated with hadron therapy, and this number will steadily increase.


A National Instruments Alliance Partner is a business entity independent from National Instruments and has no agency, partnership, or joint-venture relationship with National Instruments.


Author Information:

Luigi Tremolada

Figure 1. Overview of the Synchrotron
Figure 2. Particle Physicist Marco Pullia Discussing how the Synchrotron Works
Figure 3. The PXI System that Helps Control the Synchrotron
Figure 4. PXI Systems in the Power Supply Room
Figure 5. LabVIEW in Use in The Control Room
Figure 6. The Patient Treatment Room
Figure 7. A Doctor Working in the Patient Treatment Room