Purpose: To provide specific experience-based guidance and recommendations for centers wishing to develop, validate, and implement an accurate and efficient process for directly using positron emission tomography-computed tomography (PET-CT) for the radiotherapy planning of head and neck cancer patients.
Methods: A PET-CT system was modified with hard-top couch, external lasers and radiotherapy immobilization and indexing devices and was subject to a commissioning and quality assurance program. PET-CT imaging protocols were developed specifically for radiotherapy planning and the image quality and pathway tested using phantoms and five patients recruited into an in-house study. Security and accuracy of data transfer was tested throughout the whole data pathway. The patient pathway was fully established and tested ready for implementation in a PET-guided dose-escalation trial for head and neck cancer patients.
Results: Couch deflection was greater than for departmental CT simulator machines. An area of high attenuation in the couch generated image artifacts and adjustments were made accordingly. Using newly developed protocols CT image quality was suitable to maintain delineation and treatment accuracy. Upon transfer of data to the treatment planning system a half pixel offset between PET and CT was observed and corrected. By taking this into account, PET to CT alignment accuracy was maintained below 1 mm in all systems in the data pathway. Transfer of structures delineated in the PET fusion software to the radiotherapy treatment planning system was validated.
Conclusions: A method to perform direct PET-guided radiotherapy planning was successfully validated and specific recommendations were developed to assist other centers. Of major concern is ensuring that the quality of PET and CT data is appropriate for radiotherapy treatment planning and on-treatment verification. Couch movements can be compromised, bore-size can be a limitation for certain immobilization techniques, laser positioning may affect setup accuracy and couch deflection may be greater than scanners dedicated to radiotherapy. The full set of departmental commissioning and routine quality assurance tests applied to radiotherapy CT simulators must be carried out on the PET-CT scanner. CT image quality must be optimized for radiotherapy planning whilst understanding that the appearance will differ between scanners and may affect delineation. PET-CT quality assurance schedules will need to be added to and modified to incorporate radiotherapy quality assurance. Methods of working for radiotherapy and PET staff will change to take into account considerations of both parties. PET to CT alignment must be subject to quality control on a loaded and unloaded couch preferably using a suitable emission phantom, and tested throughout the whole data pathway. Data integrity must be tested throughout the whole pathway and a system included to verify that delineated structures are transferred correctly. Excellent multidisciplinary team communication and working is vital, and key staff members on both sides should be specifically dedicated to the project. Patient pathway should be clearly devised to optimize patient care and the resources of all departments. Recruitment of a cohort of patients into a methodology study is valuable to test the quality assurance methods and pathway.