Rock Mackie: Applying physics and engineering to medicine

While growing up in Canada, Thomas Rockwell (Rock) Mackie, director of Medical Engineering, had three heroes: Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, and antarctic explorer Ernest Shackelton. They inspired a fascination with nuclear physics and scientific expedition that Mackie has pursued in both academia and industry.

His fascination morphed into a passion to advance the technology and practices of radiation medicine, to better diagnose and treat human disease.

Mackie came to the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1987 as a visiting professor and earned tenure there, practicing in the departments of medical physics, human oncology, biomedical engineering and engineering physics. He taught at UW–Madison for 25 years and is proud of the more than 30 PhD students he has mentored, fostering the next generation of scientists in these fields. He has been a UW–Madison Professor Emeritus since 2011, but still guides the careers of students affiliated with the Morgridge Institute, who like him, are addressing the challenges of physics and engineering applied to medicine.

Throughout his career, Mackie has been an indefatigable innovator, with more than 40 patents and 170 peer-reviewed publications to his name. His research has embraced improvement to both medical imaging and radiation therapy technologies. Through time, he realized the equal importance of improving the procedures for delivering radiation medicine, to ensure efficacy and patient safety. His discoveries range from better components for radiation therapy systems, to methods for evaluating quality assurance criteria in the delivery of a treatment plan, to groundbreaking work in the field of proton therapy in cancer treatment. He is actively involved with professional organizations such as the American Association of Physicists in Medicine, where he has won a Lifetime Achievement Award, and where he champions actions to improve the delivery of radiation medicine in clinical settings.

Mackie has launched several companies to speed his discoveries into applied use. In 1992 he co-founded Geometrics Corporation to develop the Pinnacle TM treatment planning system originated in his UW research group. Now owned by Philips Medical Corporation, it has become the largest selling radiation therapy treatment planning system in the world. In 1997, he co-founded TomoTherapy Inc. and helped grow it into a global public company. TomoTherapy commercialized the computed tomography (CT)-guided intensity-modulated radiotherapy concept developed by Mackie’s UW–Madison research team—enabling the precise targeting of tumors in sensitive areas of the body.

He now shares his entrepreneurial acumen by serving on the boards of biomedical start-ups such as HealthMyne, a company developing a searchable database of image analytics applied to oncology and radiology. With other faculty entrepreneurs, Rock is currently launching an advocacy organization to support campus entrepreneurship, the better to accelerate innovation to market.