Developing the smallest possible medical cyclotron

Imagine a portable medical cyclotron operated in a conventional radioactive facility at a hospital. Imagine a nurse or technician switching it on and producing isotopes at the patient’s bedside. Sounds like science fiction? Think again.


CERN has teamed up with Spain’s national scientific research centre (CIEMAT) to develop an avant-garde cyclotron to be used for Positron Emission Tomography (PET). “We plan to make a cyclotron that doesn't need an insulated building or ‘vault’: a cyclotron small enough to fit inside a hospital lift,” explains Jose Manuel Perez, who is leading the CIEMAT/CERN collaboration. “It will be the smallest possible medical cyclotron for single patient dose production and will dramatically reduce costs for hospitals.”

While PET technology has transformed imaging techniques, many of its medical benefits have remained confined to highly specialised hospitals. “Studies have found that many isotopes can be used with biomedical tracers for PET scans,” explains Jean-Marie Le Goff, HEPTech’s Coordinator . “Unfortunately, these isotopes have extremely short half-lives. For example, the 11C isotope, which studies have shown can act as a marker for cancer and Alzheimer’s, has a half-life of only 20 minutes.”

To be able to use isotopes like 11C, hospitals need to be able to produce them on site. But how? In 2008, Jean-Marie and his colleague Hartmut Hillemanns came to realize that the technology for a compact medical cyclotron already existed in the physics community. At that point, they began working on what would eventually become the compact CERN/CIEMAT collaboration: producing a cyclotron small enough – and cost-effective enough – to be installed in any typical radiotherapy department.

“The collaboration with CERN is essential for the project's success, as much of the technical know-how is just not available outside the Organization,” says Jose Manuel. “We will be working very closely with CERN scientists in various areas, including cryogenics, vacuum technology, beam optics, magnet design, and radiofrequency systems.”

While the project is being funded by Spanish industry and CDTI, the Centre for Development of Technology and Innovation, and developed at CIEMAT, some of the work will be carried out at CERN. “A number of CERN experts in the field of accelerator technologies are providing the project with part time consultancy services. All the technical departments, i.e. TE, BE and EN, are involved. Cryogenics and vacuum technologies require in-depth studies and we have already started to take on two students to work on the cyclotron full-time.” explains Friedrich Haug, who is responsible for the cryogenics and technical coordination at CERN. “CERN will also provide some R&D and testing facilities for segments of the cyclotron.”

In just two short years, the CIEMAT/CERN cyclotron should be commissioned as a research prototype for producing isotopes for medical use. The next phase will consist in turning this prototype into an industrial product, bringing advanced technologies from basic research science to society.


1 HEPTech: The Technology Transfer Network of institutions active in particle, astro-particle and nuclear physics in CERN Member States.

by Katarina Anthony