Could ‘Mini CERN’ Provide The Next Radiotherapy Innovation?

Radiotherapy centre Austria - radiotherapy

Ever since the possibilities of radiotherapy were first discovered in the 1890s and put into practice in the 1900s, the potential of this technology to treat cancer has been a keen subject of intensive research around the world.

Indeed, if you or someone you know comes to be treated at our radiotherapy centre in Austria, the treatments available will be vastly more advanced than anything that could be offered in those pioneering days, enabling thousands of patients to enjoy years of extra high-quality living.

Until such time as someone produces a magic bullet that will kill all cancer, terminate all tumours and ensure our cells behave benignly, the need for research will never end, with new radiotherapy techniques as important as any other treatment option.

What that means in practice is finding better ways of delivering more precise and carefully aimed doses of radiation, intending to provide the maximum radioactive blast to kill tumours and cancerous cells, while minimising the exposure of healthy cells, which can bring all kinds of unpleasant and occasionally hazardous side-effects.

CERN Provides A New Innovation

The latest development that may promise new treatments comes from work in Germany, using mini versions of the particle detectors used at CERN, Medical Express has revealed.

CERN is famous as the giant underground laboratory under the Alps that spans the Swiss and French borders, using the Large Hadron Collider to fire particles down vast underground tunnels while measuring various bits of data.

Discoveries like the probable existence of the Higgs Boson – which determines why things have mass – and gravity waves will have excited physicists, but some may ask what the practical benefits of these advances in knowledge might be.

Part of the answer may be found in Germany, where the same kind of technology on a smaller scale is now being tested in a combined effort by the German National Centre for Tumour Diseases, the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ), and the Heidelberg Ion Beam Therapy Centre.

Working together at Heidelberg University Hospital using a Czech-made device, the researchers are using a Timepix3 pixel detector developed by CERN to monitor head and neck tumours during radiotherapy sessions.

How The Technology Works

“One of the most advanced methods for treating head and neck tumours involves irradiation with ion beams,” said the head of the DKFZ team Maria Martisikova.

She added: “This has one unique feature: it can be precisely tailored to the depth inside the human head where the particles should have the maximal effect.”

What that means is that by using the new CERN-designed technology to provide a level of monitoring way ahead of anything previously available, the researchers can establish exactly where and how deep the ion particles are going and by monitoring the effects, establish the most effective measurements to use to bring about optimal outcomes for patients.

The importance of this, the article noted, is that like other forms of radiation therapy, ion therapy risks hitting healthy tissues, organs and nerves with radiation. In the case of brain surgery, it gives examples of the memory centre and optic nerve as among the most vulnerable areas.

Up until now, there has not been a means of closely measuring the ions sufficiently to target them precisely. This is exacerbated by the fact that the brain can change during treatment in ways that may not become apparent in ‘real-time’ during treatment, rather than showing up in later CT scans.

Lukas Marek from ADVACAM, the firm making the particle detector, said: “Our cameras can register every charged particle of secondary radiation emitted from the patient’s body. It’s like watching balls scattered by a billiard shot.

He added that this means the balls will “bounce correctly” if the latest CT scan is up to date, while if they don’t it means the brain has changed and a new scan and revised targeting are needed.

What Else May Come From CERN?

Such possibilities may not have been imagined when CERN began operating, but they have emerged as tangible benefits that the world of radiotherapy can benefit from enormously.

In the meantime, work goes on at CERN on various experiments, such as using a laser to cool a form of antimatter called positronium, which it states could pave the way for a new series of antimatter experiments, including the creation of a matter-antimatter system that emits a gamma ray-like light.

Could such a ray have the same effects as the gamma rays used in radiotherapy? Or could it exhibit some other characteristics that may one day have a medically beneficial use? It remains to be seen. But as long as such research is taking place, it could help take radiotherapy in unexpected new directions in the future.