Physics and Computing Division

Innovation has been a long-standing strength of the Medical Physics and Computing Division, exemplified by our pioneering work in image-based treatment planning systems during the 1980’s (PLanUNC), and today, in the development of nanotechnology-based radiation research technology.


Welcome to the webpage of the Division of Physics and Computing!  The Division consists of a busy clinical physics and dosimetry section that supports state of the art radiotherapy clinical services and a strong research section featuring a variety of multidisciplinary research programs.  The Division has nine faculty members with diverse areas of expertise including radiotherapy, diagnostic, and basic physics, image analysis, biomedical engineering, radiation oncology and nanotechnology.  In addition, we have a group of exceptionally talented and dedicated clinical physicists, dosimetrists, software engineers, and IT and accelerator engineer professionals, as well as a group of hardworking postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and other trainees.  Routine clinical physics and dosimetry operation is managed by Ms. Kathy Burkhardt, MS, our very capable Director of Clinical Physics and Dosimetry.


Key Research Strengths

Innovation and multidisciplinary collaboration have been core strengths of the Physics and Computing Division, exemplified by our pioneering work in image-based treatment planning system development in the 1980’s (PLanUNC) led by Drs. Edward Chaney, Julian Rosenman, and Stephen Pizer (Computer Science) and today, in the development of nanotechnology-based radiation research and imaging technology led by Drs. Sha Chang and Otto Zhou (Physics and Astronomy). Our research strategy is to focus on a few well-selected, multidisciplinary areas that have the potential to significantly impact both radiotherapy and cancer research.

Major research achievements

Nanotechnology-enabled X-Ray Imaging and Irradiation Technology Development

Since 2002 an exciting nanotechnology-based radiation research and therapy technology development program has been initiated by the the Division Head Dr. Sha Chang, in collaboration with Dr. Otto Zhou from the UNC Department of Physics. The new research initiatives have generated and contributed to significant research funding from NIH (the prestigious NCI Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence (CCNE) grant (2005-2010 and 2010-2015), regional (NC Center of Biotechnology), local (NC University Cancer Research Fund and NC TRACS), and commercial (Siemens) sources.  The program currently includes the development of a number of novel x-ray technologies and software approaches for potential cancer research and clinical application.

  • a single cell irradiator that isolates and kills individual cells staged on a microscope so that only the "interesting" cell types survive. This enables cancer biologists to focus on the response of the remaining cell types to treatment without interference from other cells, and has the potential to accelerate research in many areas of cell biology.
  • a micro-CT-RT device with electronic pencil beam control for image-guided laboratory rodent conformal or IMRT treatment with gating capability.
  • a x-ray tube Microbeam Radiation Therapy (MRT) treatment device. MRT is a promising experimental cancer treatment that, in a single treatment in animal research, has shown astonishing ability to spare normal tissue and eradicate tumor. Today (as of 2011), the underlying mechanism of MRT is still poorly understood, as this MRT radiation can be only produced in a few large synchrotron facilities in the world. This desktop device has the potential to accelerate research into this fertile new treatment modality.
  • Real-time image-guidance software approach for Nanotube Stationary Tomosynthesis (NST) technology that can acquire 3D images during treatment.

Medical Image Segmentation

Previous to 2007, our Division's research focus was on fast and accurate medical image segmentation software. Then we decided to spin off a startup company, Morphormics, Inc, to develop the software for commercial use. This software has been available on the Accuray CyberKnife platform since 2010 and we have heard users report that it reduces the time to contour patients from 1-2 hours down to 2-10 minutes.

PLanUNC Treatment Planning Software Development

PLanUNC (sometimes pronounced "PLUNC") is an in-house Radiotherapy Treatment Planning (RTP) system that has been used for clinical treatment, research development, and education since 1986.  PLanUNC was initially forged by the joint effort of medical physicists, computer scientists, and radiation oncologists to pioneer the field of 3D image-based treatment planning. Since it is designed as a modular system -- a suite of small cooperating programs -- it is both flexible enough to quickly adapt to changing clinical needs by plugging in new features, and yet is robust enough to lock in features required for clinical safety. This "Damascus Steel" design principle makes PLanUNC an ideal platform for both clinical and research needs. Continuous enhancements and improvements have made PLanUNC into a powerful & safe clinical-grade tool that we rely on for patient treatment, research, and education at UNC.

PLanUNC is a NIH supported public research and education tool that has been utilized free-of-charge for research and education by many cancer institutions worldwide. Institutional licenses can be obtained by sending in this license form along with a short statement of intended use.