Cheers for a comfy chair

A new chair developed by engineering students at Rice University will make radiation therapy sessions for cancer patients more comfortable and more effective.

In cooperation with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, five Rice students have developed a seat that helps patients relax as they stay perfectly still while precise beams of radiation attack tumors. The device is the students’ senior capstone design project, required of most Rice engineering students for graduation.

Patients seated in the chair face forward with their chests on the chair back and heads resting on a ring. Pads for their knees support their weight, and bars allow them to get a stable grip during the treatment, which can last up to 15 minutes.

Laurence Court, an assistant professor of radiation physics at MD Anderson, asked Rice to help develop this one component of a comprehensive effort to improve the patient experience. Traditionally, Court said, patients have had to lie down on a bench to be imaged by computed tomography (CT) scanners that pinpoint the location of tumors.

Rice University engineering students, from left, Samuel Stein, Jina Ko, Sarah Mason and Brandon Nguyen have developed a chair to ease the burden of patients undergoing radiation therapy for cancer. Not pictured: Team member Nathan Han. Photo by Tommy LaVergne

But the technology is improving, he said, and versions of the cone-beam CT (CBCT) scanners often used for orthodontics are now commonplace for cancer treatment.

In the new project, rather than move the imaging and radiation equipment around the patient, the patient will move inside the equipment. The bench will be mounted to a turntable and the Rice components will be attached for patients who are more comfortable sitting up than lying down.

“We do have a chair because sometimes we treat people in an upright position, but it’s sort of prehistoric,” Court said. “If you really can’t lie down and we absolutely must treat you, we would use it, but it’s not a high-tech treatment. Whereas the chair the students have developed will bring seated CT treatments into the modern era, allowing us to position the patients in a more comfortable position while taking advantage of all the imaging available with modern treatment machines.

“You’d be amazed how much excitement there is here about this device,” he said.

The members of Team Rad – Sarah Mason, Jina Ko, Nathan Han, Samuel Stein and Brandon Nguyen – picked up the challenge and quickly decided a modified massage chair had potential. The chair was easy to relax in and provided a clear shot at tumors from many positions with CBCT and radiation equipment.

Rice engineering student Sarah Mason demonstrates the radiation therapy chair developed by students in cooperation with the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. Photo by Tommy LaVergne

The team worked closely with Court and their Rice advisers, Oshman Engineering Design Kitchen Director Maria Oden and Matthew Wettergreen, a lecturer in engineering. “Before we did any brainstorming, we set up times for all of us to go (to MD Anderson) and observe, talk to the radiologist, see the current standard of care and the treatment process,” Mason said.

Mason said patients who are sitting breathe easier and are “less likely to fidget. Also, their tissue is expanded and held more taut, so it’s less likely to shift.”

The Rice students’ comfy chair is in reality a set of highly adjustable components that attach to the bench. The attachments allow patients to hold still more easily as the machines do their work and can be set to the same positions for repeat sessions. The students used smartphone cameras and apps to track movements as they tested the chair over long periods and found they could not only hold still, but also could get up and reliably get back into the same positions.

“We put in as many discrete things as possible to make a quick adjustment with few continuous pieces,” Stein said. “The biggest things you would adjust for are height, for which you adjust the chest rest and the head support, and arm length, which is in one of the (interchangeable) chest supports. It should be a really quick process.”

“The whole thing integrates with our current work process really nicely,” Court said.

Court said MD Anderson is filing for a patent on the students’ and hospital’s behalf and hopes to have the entire system ready to treat patients in a year.


About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.