Second in a series of four profiles on the 2017 winners of the BWH Health & Technology Innovation Grants. Each winning team competed in a “Shark Tank”-style event and was selected for a $50,000 grant for basic/clinical/translational science-focused as well as commercialization-oriented research projects. These grants are supported by the Brigham Research Institute and the BWH Health & Technology Sub-Committee, which comprises friends of the Brigham from the philanthropic world.

Konstantin Kovtun, MD, places a headset on and, suddenly, the real world slips away.

Before the radiation oncology resident’s eyes, a 3-D model of a patient, rendered from data from a recent MRI scan, forms in front of a galactic backdrop. Holding a sleek wireless controller in each hand, he can intuitively manipulate the patient model with ease, rotating it around and zooming in to study the depths of the cranial anatomy. The different multicolored cranial structures that he toggles allow him to easily locate the target area of interest.

Moving the controller in the air, he precisely contours the tumor’s location in his patient model as his physicist colleague, Christopher Williams, PhD, sits beside him, watching on a computer screen. While studying the model in virtual reality (VR), they discuss the next steps for the patient’s treatment and develop a radiation plan.

With the rise of new technology such as VR, a new era for medical imaging, specifically around volumetric (3-D) imaging, is rapidly emerging. Currently, clinicians can gather detailed 3-D imaging data through MRI or CT scans, but they examine the data on a 2-D computer screen. They lose spatial context and data precision, as they must piece the image together slice by slice to determine the location of the tumor – a very time-consuming task.

Kovtun, in his fifth year of residency, and Williams have brought attention to the potential impact that virtual reality (VR) could have in a clinical context.

Technology Enthusiasts Connect

In radiation oncology, clinicians and physicists team up to plan radiation delivery to patients. Meeting during their overlapping periods of residency, Kovtun and Williams bonded over their love for technology. When Kovtun pre-ordered the HTC VIVE (one of the first commercially available consumer VR systems), he immediately invited Williams over to test out the technology.

“When we began to experiment with the VIVE, we quickly realized the many advantages that VR technology offers for advancing 3-D medical visualization and manipulation. The way clinicians currently view 3-D imaging data diminishes its precision, so we decided to take on the challenge of optimizing the way we look at and understand the data,” says Williams.

Kovtun and Williams used their programming knowledge to develop innovative software to more easily manipulate 3-D imaging data, working on the project in their spare time outside of work. But when they faced funding obstacles in realizing their entrepreneurial vision, they turned to resources at BWH to take their project to the next level.

Initial seed funding from the BRI enabled them to shift their software from a weekend side project to a full-fledged academic research venture. Strategic commercialization guidance from iHub further accelerated the project’s movement, providing the duo with entrepreneurial advice and connecting them to business development resources. With iHub’s support, Kovtun and Williams could develop their idea and enter it into the Shark Tank competition.

“The Shark Tank competition is unique in that it brings together a mix of people from both the scientific community and the world of venture capital. Pitching an idea to this audience was a new challenge for us, and it pushed us to think outside of our typical network of scientific knowledge. We found it very helpful to have guidance in learning how to strategically present at this level,” said Kovtun.

With additional priorities in their busy careers, the latest challenge that Kovtun and Williams face is the need of obtaining more help. With funding from the competition, the two plan to expand their team by hiring more programmers to accelerate the software’s development and integrate the system towards clinical application.

“While we are currently building the software in the context of radiation oncology, the versatile capabilities of VR allow the technology to be used across multiple disciplines in medicine, with any type of data for a variety of purposes,” said Williams.

The team continues to work with the iHub to explore pathways for commercialization of their idea and receives feedback from multi-disciplinary colleagues to optimize the system.

“We hope that our project will advance medical imaging into the 3-D+ era, enabling clinicians to evaluate data and deliver care that is closer to the truth,” says Kovtun.