1st computer controlled medical device
Automation is so central to radiotherapy, it is easy to forget that there was a time when linacs were largely configured manually, each field size, gantry angle, and cerrobend tray placed by hand. Designers of radiotherapy equipment have long recognized the importance of automating how radiotherapy is delivered so that more advanced radiation therapy can be available.
How did all this start?
In the late 1970s, the Therac-6 was a medical accelerator that was designed, manufactured, and marketed by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. It was also the first linac controlled by a computer - a PDP-11/05. At the time, this was a remarkably forward looking and advanced concept. The designers and engineers probably did not think that this would lead to innovations that could transform radiotherapy. Much of the technology of radiotherapy today is only possible through automation, which requires computer control to make most of our modern techniques a reality. It is quite likely that the Therac-6, and the way it was designed may have been the beginning of the road to modern linacs capable of VMAT, SRS and other deliveries.
So innovative was this machine we could even ask if this was the first computer controlled medical device? It’s hard to know. Other than CT scanners, there aren’t many examples of computer controlled medical devices before the Therac-6.
Today, when we think of medical equipment, and health care in general, it is inconceivable to think of them without computer control. Did all this get its start in a radiotherapy application? Maybe. Innovation has always been a driver in radiation therapy. It would not be surprising if this improved cancer care, but many other fields of medicine as well.