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Particle physics pushing cancer treatment boundaries

Particle physics
(Photo: Twitter)
GENEVA, Switzerland — Researchers at Europe’s science lab CERN, who regularly use particle physics to challenge our understanding of the universe, are also applying their craft to upend the limits to cancer treatment.اضافة اعلان

The physicists here are working with giant particle accelerators in search of ways to expand the reach of cancer radiation therapy, and take on hard-to-reach tumors that would otherwise have been fatal.

In one CERN lab, called CLEAR, facility coordinator Roberto Corsini stands next to a large, linear particle accelerator consisting of a 40m metal beam with tubes packed in aluminum foil at one end, and a vast array of measurement instruments and protruding colorful wires and cables.

The research here, he told AFP during a recent visit, is aimed at creating very high energy beams of electrons that eventually could help to combat cancerous cells more effectively.

They are researching a “technology to accelerate electrons to the energies that are 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. This method entails delivering the radiation dose in a few hundred milliseconds, instead of minutes as is 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 do create some collateral damage,” said Benjamin Fisch, a CERN knowledge transfer officer. The effect of the brief but intense FLASH treatment, he told reporters, is to “reduce the 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, that provide low-energy electron beams of around 6-10 MeV.

At such low energy though, the beams cannot penetrate deeply, meaning the highly-effective treatment has so far only been used on superficial tumors, found with skin cancer.

But the CERN physicists are now collaborating with the Lausanne University Hospital to build a machine for FLASH delivery that can accelerate electrons to 100 to 200 MeV, making it possible to use the method for much more hard-to-reach tumors.

“It is the ones which we don’t cure at the moment which will be the targets,” Professor Jean Bourhis, head of CHUV’s radiology department, told AFP.

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

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

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

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