A PARTNERship for hadron therapy

PARTNER, the Particle Training Network for European Radiotherapy, has recently been awarded 5.6 million euros by the European Commission. The project, which is coordinated by CERN, has been set up to train researchers of the future in hadron therapy and in doing so aid the battle against cancer.

Representatives of CERN, CNAO, INFN, TERA and ADAM SA after signing three new hadrontherapy agreements.

The funding success of the PARTNER project is a reflection of the growing excitement surrounding hadron therapy and the union between particle physics and medical application. The project brings together the work done in the past 10 years at CERN (see box below) and combines it with medical expertise from around Europe. The need for the 25 doctoral and postdoctoral students who will benefit from the funding (four of whom will be based at CERN) is all the more urgent because of the imminent opening of two new hadron therapy facilities in Heidelberg, Germany (HIT), and Pavia, Italy (CNAO).

"The PARTNER project involves 10 institutes and research centres in Europe and has grown out of the multidisciplinary network for hadron therapy, ENLIGHT++" states Manjit Dosanjh, who is responsible for hadron therapy at CERN and is also the ENLIGHT++ coordinator. "Something that became obvious, based on our experience with ENLIGHT++, is that all the member countries were interested in training their people so that they would already know how to use the new facilities. So, we thought, why don’t we try to get funding for young people? We already have the spirit of a multidisciplinary network and by its nature it has to be international. The recipients will get a wonderful opportunity because by the time they have trained in three or four years there will be new, upcoming and existing facilities for motivating and training young researchers ."

CERN’s input into the PARTNER training programme is, of course, closely linked to its existing strengths as a world leader in accelerator and GRID technologies. By adopting GRID technologies, the PARTNER project hopes to solve some of the multi-layered problems of referring patients, optimising treatment planning and making use of the experience gained in the treatments. This involves the exchange of large diagnostic images, sharing cancer databases and merging referral systems across European borders.

Although all of the 25 trainees will have their own speciality, linked to the institution at which they are based, they will be trained in all aspects of hadron therapy from particle physics and gantry design to epidemiology. The first students are being selected at the moment and are expected to arrive at CERN in September.

With the ultimate aim of creating the next generation of cancer cures, the PARTNER project brings together not only technology and its applications, but also ideologies that are close to CERN’s heart: collaboration and the training of young scientists.

What is hadron therapy?

Hadron therapy uses protons or carbon ions instead of X-rays to target cancerous tumours. Protons and carbon ions can target tumour tissue much more precisely than X-rays and penetrate deeper into the body with minimal harm to healthy tissue.

Hadrons can overcome the limitations of X-ray beams since they deposit most of their energy at the end of their range, in the target, while X-rays pass through the entire thickness of the body, at the location of delivery, with their energy loss being highest not far from where they enter the body. So for tumours that are further away from the surface or near critical organs, such as the eye and the brain stem, it’s very difficult to avoid some local damage. Also, if you treat young people who are going to live another 30 or 40 years, the chances of them developing secondary tumours due to the treatment is higher with conventional radiation therapy.

Overall in Europe, it is estimated that about 15% of the 20,000 patients for every 10 million inhabitants, currently treated with conventional radiation, would receive better treatment from hadron therapy.

The story up till now

The acceleration, focussing and use of protons and carbon ions for hadron therapy demands the design of complex new technology.

In 1991, Ugo Amaldi founded the TERA foundation in Italy to collect funds to allow personnel to work on accelerators for medical application. In 1995 the foundation, in collaboration with CERN, started PIMMS, the Proton Ion Medical Machine Study, to investigate the optimum design for an ion synchrotron. The heart of CNAO, the Italian-funded hadron therapy facility being built in Pavia, is a 25 metre synchrotron based on the PIMMS design.

In May this year, three new agreements were signed between CERN, CNAO, INFN (the Italian particle physics institute) and ADAM SA, a private company based in Geneva, to ensure continued cooperation between the organisations and the exchange of intellectual property.