Devoted to advancements in cancer therapy

Meet MRI expert Elena Nioutsikou who is actively shaping the role of magnetic resonance imaging in radiation therapy and advocating for more women in STEM.

5 min
Meike Feder
Published on July 31, 2023

Since joining Siemens Healthineers, Elena Nioutsikou has been at the forefront of innovation of radiation therapy for cancer patients and in particular its combination with magnetic resonance (MR) imaging. MR images can provide a better understanding of the anatomy and physiology of the disease and hence aid in designing more localized treatments with fewer side effects. Elena Nioutsikou’s goal is to help improve quality of life for cancer patients.

<p>What distinguishes a successful cancer treatment? “I think what really matters is not solely the number of months or years that a treatment can add to a patient’s life, but how well one can live during this time and if one can do the things that matter to oneself.” Elena Nioutsikou, a radiation physicist, has been working in radiotherapy for decades. She previously worked as a clinical scientist in a UK hospital and as a research fellow at the Institute of Cancer Research in London.&nbsp;</p><p>“Radiation therapy is among the least toxic treatments for cancer. It feels very rewarding to be in a position where I can explore and contribute new ways of improving quality of life for cancer patients,” she says. In 2008, she joined Siemens Healthineers, initially in product definition, then outbound marketing and now in the <a href="Varian" id="isPasted">Varian&nbsp;</a>Business Line, where she oversees a program that aims to facilitate the adoption and clinical implementation of MRI in radiotherapy.</p>

Varian has long been on a mission to help create a world without fear of cancer. Now, as a Siemens Healthineers company, we are working as one, based on a more expansive perspective of the patient's journey than ever before. As a result, our vision for the future – and what we can achieve on behalf of patients – has expanded and become much more comprehensive. Given the broad portfolio of imaging and cancer care technologies and services that we offer as one unified company, we are working together to create an oncology ecosystem that enables us to support care providers along the entire cancer care continuum.

Pioneer of radiotherapy
<p>Elena Nioutsikou sees MRI as being very beneficial to radiation planning because it shows soft tissue in much clearer detail than would be possible with X-ray imaging, such as CT. This is especially important when cancer patients are being prepared for radiotherapy, as it makes it easier to delineate and spare sensitive structures from the areas that will receive radiation. MR imaging also allows physicians to see changes sooner during a course of treatment and take action were necessary. An international study of patients with cervical cancer showed that when MRI was used for treatment planning, patients demonstrated improved outcomes.<sup>1&nbsp;</sup></p><p>“MRI gives an additional perspective of how the tumor looks like and how it behaves. It also shows well the surrounding anatomy. Thus, it can help devise strategies that are tailor-made to the individual patient,” &nbsp;says Elena Nioutsikou. “Which means that not only can their disease be targeted more effectively, also potential treatment-related toxicities can be reduced or even avoided altogether.”&nbsp;</p>

<p>Nonetheless, Elena Nioutsikou still sees a few obstacles: For instance, medical staff who specialize in radiation therapy (which uses X-rays) might not be familiar with magnetic resonance, which is the physical principle at the heart of MR imaging. “Magnetic resonance is considered complex—so we need to make it easy to use, integrate it into the workflow, and support the education of clinical personnel.” Our first implementation in this direction is the establishment of the peer-to-peer exchange platform, the <a href="https://www.magnetomworld.siemens-healthineers.com/hot-topics/mri-in-radiation-therapy" id="isPasted" target="_blank">MAGNETOM World RT</a>.&nbsp;</p><p>Using integrated solutions and automating the workflow ultimately has the potential to help treat cancer patients more effectively. For instance, deploying artificial intelligence to aid and accelerate <a href="https://www.siemens-healthineers.com/radiotherapy/software-solutions/autocontouring" target="_blank">organ contouring</a><sup>2</sup>. “Getting the contours done fast yet precisely is one of the major gains in achieving our goal of shortening the time from consultation to beginning of treatment,” says Elena Nioutsikou. Starting treatment timely and preventing disease progression, can make all the difference to a patient’s quality of life.</p>

What is MRI?

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A holistic approach is also apparent in Elena Nioutsikou’s interest in researching disease-specific solutions that aren’t tied to an individual modality. As a principal key expert at Siemens Healthineers, she seems to be well positioned for this; the <a href="Key%20Experts">Key Experts</a> network of innovators regularly gets together to share ideas.&nbsp;</p><p>One example here are the “Inspire Talks”, a kind of in-house TED Talks series. Elena Nioutsikou moderates these events and sees them as a source of inspiration—whether that’s for exploring new methods or diving deeper into subject-matter expertise: “At the Inspire Talks, speakers from different fields of technology and innovation present what they do. The most exciting part is typically the discussion that follows and moderating this is fascinating! Indeed, I have been approached more than once afterwards by colleagues telling me that they met through the talks for the first time and are now writing a patent together,” she says.</p><p>She believes that having platforms for exchanging ideas, sharing inspiration and expertise and then allowing different ideas to drive progress are crucial to the innovative power of Siemens Healthineers: “Gone are the days when innovators would come up with a new solution from beginning to end in isolation. Nowadays people with different perspectives need to come together to share and also critically examine various aspects. The motto we use is ‘fail forward’ and this safe environment to try to experiment and speak up is paramount. Then there is opportunity to light a spark and create something that wouldn’t have been created otherwise.”

Key Experts are employees with a strong passion for innovation. They love diving deep into innovations and challenges to find new ways of solving problems or to improve processes, products, and solutions. These creative minds are hugely important to Siemens Healthineers, as they contribute directly to our growing portfolio and encourage future-focused thinking.

Elena Nioutsikou sitting on an orange bench and looking in the camera.
<p id="isPasted">Elena Nioutsikou strongly believes in diversity. Having lived and worked in four countries so far, she has observed time and time again how diverse teams thrive. Within Siemens Healthineers, she is an advocate for the female perspective. She is actively participating in StepUp, a global women’s network within Siemens Healthineers. Elena Nioutsikou is contributing towards the network’s goal which is to improve diversity by increasing the number of women in all functions and at all levels of the company. “I think role models are very important on this journey. You cannot be what you cannot see. If you never see female key experts for example, you cannot imagine to give this career option a consideration, even if you have the ability and skill set.”&nbsp;</p><p>Diverse perspectives are also the key to innovation and that finds no exception in radiotherapy. “Only when we diversify the teams—beyond background, gender and age—can we innovate breakthroughs in healthcare for everyone, everywhere. Otherwise every stereotype, every bias we have as humans, are going to limit our solutions. The broader our team views are, the broader the applicability of our solutions.” Cancer patients worldwide can benefit from this approach—and gain the time to do the things that matter to them.</p>

By Meike Feder

Meike Feder is an editor at Siemens Healthineers. She focuses on stories around patient care.