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Watching Videos Helps Kids Avoid Anesthesia During Radiation Therapy

Radiation therapy is often a key part of treatment for many childhood cancers. Expecting children to remain still during the therapy, however, can be a challenge. Depending upon the age and maturity of the child, pediatric radiation therapy can include daily general anesthesia for immobilization and position reproducibility.

This reliance on anesthesia motivated the physics team at Stanford University to develop a new technology to allow pediatric patients to undergo radiation therapy—and avoid anesthesia—while watching streaming video on a personalized radiation-translucent screen.

“Our Audio-Visual Assisted Therapeutic Ambience in Radiotherapy (AVATAR) system uses a digital media player with wireless streaming and a pico projector,” explains Karl Bush, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of radiation oncology at Stanford. “And a thin paper display screen, which is translucent to radiation, is suspended above the patient to provide entertainment and distraction for the duration of serial treatments—without the need for anesthesia.”

Early pilot tests of AVATAR with 25 patients between the ages of 3 to 12 revealed that the system enabled 23 of these kids to complete their radiation therapy without anesthesia. During the first six months of using the AVATAR system, “we were able to avoid more than 450 anesthesia administrations—reducing the associated potential risks, side effects, and costs,” says Dr. Bush.

Parents of the kids using the technology are reporting that it not only “improves their child’s overall treatment experience but their physical and psychological wellbeing as well,” he adds.

AVATAR System
A birds-eye view looking down on the AVATAR system.

Beyond launching a clinical trial that uses AVATAR to replace anesthesia for kids in 2017, the Stanford team is continuing to push the boundaries of technology for adult and pediatric cancer therapy. “Along with improving patients’ treatment experience, we’re evolving AVATAR into an interactive system that will allow patients to engage actively in maximizing the precision of their own radiation treatments and minimize side effects,” notes Dr. Bush. You can watch a video of the system at work here.