How particle physics could reduce the ‘collateral damage’ of cancer treatment: ScienceAlert

How particle physics could reduce the ‘collateral damage’ of cancer treatment: ScienceAlert

Researchers at the European science laboratory CERN, who regularly use particle physics to challenge our understanding of the universe, are also applying their craft to push the boundaries cancer treatment.

Physicists here work with giant particle accelerators to find ways to extend the reach of cancer radiation therapy and to target hard-to-reach tumors that would otherwise be fatal.

In one CERN laboratory, called CLEAR, facility coordinator Roberto Corsini stands next to a large, linear particle accelerator that consists of a 40-meter metal beam with tubes wrapped in aluminum foil at one end, and a vast array of measuring instruments and protruding colorful wires. and cables.

Research here, he told AFP during a recent visit, aims to create very high-energy beams of electrons – negatively charged particles in the nucleus of an atom – that could eventually help fight cancer cells more effectively.

They are investigating “technology to accelerate electrons to the energy needed to treat deep-seated tumors, which is above 100 million electron volts” (MeV), Corsini explained.

The idea is to use these very high energy electrons (VHEE) in combination with a new and promising treatment method called FLASH.

Reducing ‘collateral damage’

This method involves delivering a dose of radiation in a few hundred milliseconds, instead of minutes like the current approach.

This has been shown to have the same destructive effect on the targeted tumor, but causes far less damage to the surrounding healthy tissue.

With traditional radiation therapy, “you create some collateral damage,” said Benjamin Fisch, CERN’s knowledge transfer officer.

The effect of the short but intense FLASH treatment, he told reporters, is to “reduce toxicity to healthy tissue while still properly damaging cancer cells.”

FLASH was first used on patients in 2018, based on currently available medical linear accelerators, linacs, which provide low-energy electron beams of around 6-10 MeV.

However, at such low energy, the rays cannot penetrate deeply, which means that the highly effective treatment has so far only been used on superficial tumors, found in skin cancer.

But CERN physicists are now collaborating with the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) to build a FLASH delivery machine that can accelerate electrons to 100 to 200 MeV, enabling the method to be used on much harder-to-reach tumors.

‘Game Changer’

Deep-seated cancer tumors that cannot be eradicated by surgery, chemotherapy, or traditional radiation therapy are often considered a death sentence today.

“The targets will be those that we currently do not cure,” Professor Jean Bourhis, head of CHUV’s radiology department, told AFP.

“For those particular types of cancer, which may be one-third of cancer cases, it could be a game changer.”

There are particular hopes that the FLASH method, with its far less harmful impact on the surrounding tissue, could make it possible to pursue tumors located in the brain or near other vital organs.

Bourhis said it may not consign deaths from stubborn cancer tumors to the history books, “but at least there will be a new opportunity for more cures, if it works.”


One of the challenges is to make a powerful accelerator compact enough to fit in a hospital.

At CERN, a large gallery is dedicated to housing the CLEAR accelerator, which requires 20 meters to push the electrons to the required energy level – and another 20 meters to condition, measure and deliver the beam.

But Corsini insisted that CERN has the knowledge and experience to “accelerate in a much more compact space”.

The prototype being designed with the CHUV will aim to do the same job with a machine that has an overall length of 10 meters.

This “compact” solution, Corsini said, “reduces costs, reduces energy consumption and variability, and you can easily place it in a hospital without having to build an entire building.”

The construction of the prototype is planned to begin next February and patiently clinical trials it may begin in 2025, Bourhis said, “if everything goes smoothly.”

© French media agency

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