Within the vast Telematics Technologies Programme, set up by the European Commission, nine partners are working on a two-year telemedical project for clinical radio-oncology since August 1998. Four hospitals, three industrial players and two research institutions have united their forces to generate the Virtuoso demonstration site in order to incorporate telematical applications into an existing radiotherapy planning system. Cancer patients in desperate need of radiation treatment will be helped by means of a pre-validated plan acquired through virtual simulation techniques. In a second step, the digital patient data can be transmitted to distant radio-oncology facilities over the available networks for detailed consultation by specialists or supplementary Computed Tomography (CT) scanning.
In the western countries, a quarter of the mortality rate is due to cancer. Each year, the European Union faces about one million new cases, representing 0.5% of the total population. For two third of the patients, the disease can be cured or at least palliated with radiation therapy. At present, 8000 irradiation systems are being used world-wide in 4000 radio-oncology facilities. The cost for one single machine easily amounts to 1.5 million euro or even more. Innovative imaging and treatment planning methods emerge every day now and constantly change the aspect of radiation medicine. High technology applications require specialized knowhow and increase the need for expensive equipment. Unfortunately, the health care sector is forced to tighten the belt in an active search for cost-effective methodologies, allowing to enhance or at least maintain the overall quality of patient care.
The Virtuoso consortium will try to reconcile the existing opposite interests of balanced economics and qualitative medical care by making available the expensive equipment and expertise via the implementation of telematics. In this way, hospitals will be able to access geographically separated oncology centres in order to share state-of-the-art systems and knowledge. Nucletron, a Dutch company which takes part in the project, has designed an advanced radiotherapy planning system, referred to as PLATO. This modular system supports special functions such as 3D Brachytherapy, 2D and 3D External Beam, Stereotactic Radiosurgery, and Virtual Simulation. Digital images are used to free the patient from burdening examinations during the preparatory planning stage and to "virtualize" the procedure.
The resulting virtual patient can be accessed from any remote site thanks to the installation of telematical components, which will be based on currently existing telecommunications means, such as the Internet, Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) or conventional telephone lines. Hospitals that have no costly devices, like for instance a CT scanner, will receive the opportunity to virtually share this kind of equipment with distant specialized facilities. Both concepts of virtualized planning and tele-appiclation of remote devices will improve the efficiency of hospital personnel and accuracy of treatment while reducing the individual patient cost. As an additional advantage, the physician can ask a remote expert to generate the radiation treatment plan for a particular patient or to validate his own in an on-line tele-consultation conference or via an off-line desktop system.
The Virtuoso project will result in an implemented prototype which will be made available to the four hospital partners in the consortium. For this purpose, Nucletron's PLATO system will be upgraded with all the necessary and innovative telematics features. The project team anticipates that 8% of Nucletron's customers will benefit from the telematical PLATO version within the first two years. In the long run, it is estimated that the Virtuoso options will be integrated into 25% to 30% of all installations. An excellent chance for leading-edge European products and services to gain a visible spot in the global market. Please, consult our special VMW article for more details on the PLATO radiation treatment planning system. More Virtuoso news is to be found on the project's home page.