Medical physicists at UT Southwestern Medical Center are finding new ways to use the speed of video game processors to promote research that is aimed at improving patient care.
In recent years, video game processors, known as graphic processing units, or GPUs, have become massively powerful as game makers support increasingly elaborate video graphics. Medical experts took note of the GPU’s rapid-fire processing. Among the pioneers seeking ways to apply the processing speed of GPUs to medical use is Dr. Steve Jiang, UT Southwestern’s new Director of the Division of Medical Physics and Engineering, and Professor and Vice Chairman of Radiation Oncology.
One practical application is reducing the time required to calculate the radiation dose delivered to a tumor during proton radiotherapy, he said. The faster video processors can reduce the time of the most complex calculation method from 70 hours to just 10 seconds.
“That’s an astonishing improvement in processing speed,” Dr. Jiang said. “We should really thank video gamers. The popularity of video games has resulted in a tool that is very beneficial for scientific computing in medicine. The quicker results mean increased convenience for patients and physicians, and translate in a significant way to better patient care,” he said.
Radiotherapy is often delivered in many treatments that can span weeks, during which time the patient’s anatomy or the tumor itself can change. Dr. Jiang’s highly efficient calculation allows for more accurate treatment plans based on daily calculations that are adapted to changes in the patient’s daily geometry (such as weight, size and shape of the tumor), as well as the healthy tissue around the tumor. With the faster processor, doctors can make calculations before each treatment, instead of re-using older data, and new calculations can make the treatments more exact, sparing surrounding healthy tissue.
“The main idea is to change the way we treat patients,” Dr. Jiang said. “If someone has a cancer, you want to treat the disease immediately and precisely. The current slower calculations require patients to wait for about a week to receive the first radiation treatment after consulting with doctors.”
Although video games may seem to offer little beyond entertainment, the consumer demand was so intense that game developers created better, faster, and cheaper processors for video games than for any other applications.
“Market forces are strong and act much quicker than federal or state research funding mechanisms,” Dr. Jiang said.
Dr. Jiang earned his doctorate in radiation therapy physics from the Medical College of Ohio in Toledo before completing a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University School of Medicine. He came to UT Southwestern in 2013 from the University of California at San Diego.