Purpose: The goals of this study were to survey and summarize the advances in imaging that have potential applications in radiation oncology, and to explore the concept of integrating physical and biological conformality in multidimensional conformal radiotherapy (MD-CRT).
Methods and materials: The advances in three-dimensional conformal radiotherapy (3D-CRT) have greatly improved the physical conformality of treatment planning and delivery. The development of intensity-modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) has provided the "dose painting" or "dose sculpting" ability to further customize the delivered dose distribution. The improved capabilities of nuclear magnetic resonance imaging and spectroscopy, and of positron emission tomography, are beginning to provide physiological and functional information about the tumor and its surroundings. In addition, molecular imaging promises to reveal tumor biology at the genotype and phenotype level. These developments converge to provide significant opportunities for enhancing the success of radiotherapy.
Results: The ability of IMRT to deliver nonuniform dose patterns by design brings to fore the question of how to "dose paint" and "dose sculpt", leading to the suggestion that "biological" images may be of assistance. In contrast to the conventional radiological images that primarily provide anatomical information, biological images reveal metabolic, functional, physiological, genotypic, and phenotypic data. Important for radiotherapy, the new and noninvasive imaging methods may yield three-dimensional radiobiological information. Studies are urgently needed to identify genotypes and phenotypes that affect radiosensitivity, and to devise methods to image them noninvasively. Incremental to the concept of gross, clinical, and planning target volumes (GTV, CTV, and PTV), we propose the concept of "biological target volume" (BTV) and hypothesize that BTV can be derived from biological images and that their use may incrementally improve target delineation and dose delivery. We emphasize, however, that much basic research and clinical studies are needed before this potential can be realized.
Conclusions: Whereas IMRT may have initiated the beginning of the end relative to physical conformality in radiotherapy, biological imaging may launch the beginning of a new era of biological conformality. In combination, these approaches constitute MD-CRT that may further improve the efficacy of cancer radiotherapy in the new millennium.