As well as teaching the next generation of medical physicists, Associate Professor Rick Franich is developing new techniques to accurately measure radiation doses for the treatment of cancer.
The program leader for the Master of Medical Physics also runs the related Masters by Research in Health and Medical Physics, supervises a cohort of PhD students, and teaches theoretical and practical radiation physics at an undergraduate level.
What is medical physics?
Medical physics is about the applications of physical science to diagnostic and therapeutic medicine.
A significant part of it is concerned with the use of ionising radiation for cancer treatment and for medical imaging such as x-ray CT and PET. Medical physicists ensure that these processes are done accurately and safely.
Tell me about your current research.
My research is focused on solving challenging radiation measurement problems. Almost nothing about radiation measurement is simple!
Our ability to improve radiation treatment of cancers critically depends on knowing exactly where we are delivering the radiation dose. This implies the need for high spatial and temporal resolution measurements, or accurate computer simulation, or both.
Understanding the effects and health impacts of even very low radiation exposures, such as those used in diagnostic imaging, also depends on accurate knowledge of radiation exposure to various body tissues.
In one of my research projects, we are developing a new instrumentation system for real-time tracking of the exact location of a high intensity radioactive source that is inserted into tumours to treat them from the inside (a technique called brachytherapy).
In another project, we have developed the world’s first 3D deformable radiation dosimeter – we can deliver a treatment to it, while deforming it like a live patient organ does, and ‘see’ where the radiation went. Very cool.
What drew you to this area and what do you enjoy about it?
Physicists are fascinated by how the universe works, and then how to use that knowledge to do useful things.
Medical physics is probably the ultimate application that brings together the intriguing unseen world of radiation physics, with the warm and fuzzy satisfaction of knowing that you’re doing something that genuinely matters - contributing to life saving treatment techniques.
I’ve always been interested in solving problems... the more relevant and applicable, the better. I really enjoy talking with my clinical collaborators and listening for the cues that indicate a gap in the current knowledge or an opportunity to do something better.
What are the challenges?
More than half of all cancer patients are treated with radiotherapy. Technological advancements in medical equipment and also computing power are enabling a leap in complexity of what is achievable.
One of the greatest challenges is working out how best to use these technologies to achieve the best possible outcome for every patient. By properly quantifying the improvements to both tumour targeting and healthy tissue sparing, we can really optimise the treatments and minimise risk.
Where do you see your research area in 10 years?
One of the most interesting prospects on the horizon is the convergence of the physics and radiobiology aspects of radiation dosimetry. Radiotherapy treatment planning will be based not only on the physical quantity of absorbed radiation dose, but also on the individual patient’s tissue response to that dose.
Could we develop a detector that measures tissue damage in vivo? Or a tissue-surrogate detector that experiences radiation damage the way tissue does, and reports it?
The integration of real-time medical imaging with motion-compensated treatment delivery will also lead to some exciting developments.
What are the burgeoning areas in this field?
Australia, like most of the world, is experiencing a shortage of qualified medical physicists in hospitals.
The planned growth of radiotherapy treatment facilities is creating a demand that exceeds the current personnel supply.
Many countries now have structured programs for combining accredited masters programs and on-the-job clinical training, leading to certification as a medical physicist.
What kind of student succeeds in this area? What qualities do they possess?
Medical physics brings together a highly specialised branch of physics, with cross-disciplinary skills in areas such as anatomy and physiology.
In addition to strong fundamental knowledge and skills, written and verbal communication skills are vital for working as a member of a multi-disciplinary team responsible for patient outcomes.
What do you enjoy about teaching into the Master degree?
I really enjoy bringing real-world context problems into the classroom. To show students the applications of what they are learning and then to almost see the thought processes of how something can be done even better by exploiting some physical property.
Of course these fresh ideas have often already been thought of by others, but it illustrates the creativity and innovative thinking that new science inspires and requires.
Story: Rebecca McGillvray