Award-Winning Nuclear Physics Technology Monitors Cancer Treatments

  • Square detector head with numerous clear glass fibers across the top surface and out the side.

A detector built with scintillating fibers that will be used in an upcoming nuclear physics experiment in Jefferson Lab's Experimental Hall A. 

The OARtrac® system, built with detector technologies used in nuclear physics, has won kudos for measuring radiation treatments in hard-to-reach areas.

NEWPORT NEWS, VA – Nearly a half-million cancer patients are treated with radiation therapy every year in the United States. Now, technologies developed in partnership with the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (Jefferson Lab) are helping to ensure that patients are receiving just what the doctor ordered.

The technologies are featured in RadiaDyne’s OARtrac® system, which was cited as a Medical Device Engineering Breakthrough Award in the 2018 MedTech Breakthrough Awards program earlier this year. OARtrac® was also recently announced as a 2018 R&D 100 award finalist by R&D Magazine, with winners to be announced in mid-November.

According to Jefferson Lab Staff Scientist and Hall A and C Leader, Cynthia Keppel, some key technologies that make OARtrac® successful come from basic nuclear physics research. The path from research component to application took the better part of a decade.

The technologies were first developed more than a decade ago in a back room of a building on the Jefferson Lab campus. At the time, Keppel was a jointly appointed Jefferson Lab staff scientist/Hampton University assistant professor. She and her colleagues were working with students in Hampton University’s Center for Advanced Medical Instrumentation to explore medical applications for detector technologies used in nuclear physics.

She says the technologies are based on a novel application of scintillating fiber material. In nuclear physics, scintillating material is routinely used to help identify the particles that are produced in experiments.

“What small scintillating fibers do is the same that our big scintillators over in the nuclear physics experimental halls do: when radiation hits them, it causes a bit of scintillation light,” she explained. “So, if more radiation hits it, bigger light signal, less radiation hits it, smaller light signal. More or less radiation in a radiation therapy setting means more or less dose.”

Keppel and her colleagues began working with the scintillating fibers to solve a big challenge for radiation oncology: the difficulty of measuring exactly how much radiation cancer patients receive in real-time at the tumor site. That’s when she began talking to radiation oncology experts and learned about the catheter systems being developed at RadiaDyne.

Those discussions led to the idea of adding the scintillating fibers to RadiaDyne’s systems, so that they could be used to monitor the radiation that cancer patients receive in a whole host of hard-to-reach areas. RadiaDyne ultimately licensed three of Keppel’s technologies for use in the OARtrac® system. The system is designed to allow therapists to not only monitor, but also adjust the radiation delivered, so that patients receive the amount specified in their treatment plan.

“Anywhere clinicians can put a catheter, they can put one of the little fiber dosimeters. It allows for radiation dose monitoring where it was not possible before,” Keppel marvels. “The big thing is that it really makes a difference to treatments for patients.”

She is also quick to caution that the technologies didn’t traverse the road from nuclear physics research to radiation treatment system overnight. It took years of diligent engineering effort by the company to bring the technology to the marketplace. But it is an excellent example of how basic nuclear physics research can lead to applications that have important consequences on society.

“We can build something in a lab and develop it to where you can see that it’s feasible and how to use it,” she explains. “But to take that thing and make it into a product requires a partnership with private industry.”

According to John Isham, founder and chief executive officer of RadiaDyne, converting a technology designed for research into one for use in medical applications allows companies to offer the advantages of these basic nuclear physics research technologies to patients.

"RadiaDyne's OARtrac® development from idea to product nicely demonstrates the role that private industry can play as a partner in bringing basic science concepts to practical application in the marketplace,” he said.

Further Reading:

JLab Researcher Receives Award For Excellence In Service To Physics

Keppel Named an Outstanding Virginia Scientist for 2011

Hampton University Physics Professor, Jefferson Lab Staff Scientist Winner Of Annual State Outstanding Faculty Award

Jill of All Trades: From Auto Racing to Physics, Cynthia Keppel Does It All

U.S. Patent #7662083

U.S. Patent #8133167

U.S. Patent Application #20140018675A1

Technology Transfer at Jefferson Lab


Contact: Kandice Carter, Jefferson Lab Communications Office, 757-269-7263,


Jefferson Science Associates, LLC, manages and operates the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, or Jefferson Lab, for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. JSA is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Southeastern Universities Research Association, Inc. (SURA).

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit