Stronger links between CERN and South Africa

iThemba LABS in South Africa is a research facility that, about twenty years ago, started to treat oncological patients with particle beams. Its collaboration with CERN has steadily grown over the years. After becoming a member of the ALICE and ATLAS Collaborations, today iThemba LABS is planning to buy a new medical-use cyclotron proton facility, and is seeking to strengthen its links with CERN and Europe also in this field by collaborating with ENLIGHT. The cyclotron will be dedicated to proton therapy – the only one of its kind in the southern hemisphere.


iThemba LABS (Laboratory for Accelerator Based Sciences) was established near Cape Town, South Africa almost 50 years ago as the continent's base for the Southern Universities Nuclear Institute that is now used mainly for material science research. In the 1980s, iThemba built a 200MeV cyclotron and, following its construction, in the early 1990s branched into a new scientific field: radiation and nuclear medicine. While its research focus remained, iThemba began using late-hour “dead time” to produce short- and long-lived isotopes for nuclear medicine applications. Shortly after, iThemba began using the cyclotron for hadron therapy exploiting both protons and neutrons.

Currently, the cyclotron’s time is split between 3 areas: nuclear physics research, the production of medical isotopes, and hadron therapy. “We want to extend our role in hadron therapy, bringing this treatment option to more patients in Africa,” says Daniel Adams from the Department of Science and Technology, South Africa. As explained by Vincent Spannenberg, Head of Business Management at iThemba LABS: “The only way we can do this without sacrificing our other – equally important – activities is to build a brand-new cyclotron.”

Which is where CERN comes in. “We will be sharing CERN and ENLIGHT’s know-how in setting up successful collaborations and dealing with issues involving multidisciplinary envirionments,” explains Manjit Dosanjh, a member of the Knowledge Transfer group and Advisor to the DG for Life Sciences. The collaboration with iThemba on ion sources will benefit CERN’s own heavy-ion physics programme. “While iThemba already has a significant amount of expertise in cyclotrons, this collaboration with CERN will give us the opportunity to build on its existing knowledge and will also provide it with a training base for new personnel,” confirms Vincent Spannenberg.

This cyclotron collaboration with iThemba is but one of the many ways CERN has been collaborating with the African nation. South Africa is a member of ALICE and ATLAS, and hosted the First African School of Physics last year; scientists from iThemba are also participating in the ISOLDE experimental programme. “We truly value the co-operation with CERN,” concludes Daniel Adams. “By engaging with government officials as well as collaborating with our accelerator initiatives, CERN is supporting South Africa’s emergence on the research-world map. The new proton treatment facility will treat patients from the entire continent, bringing state-of-the-art medicine to a truly large population also in this part of the world.”


Neutron therapy

iThemba LABS has a long experience in exploiting neutrons to treat tumours. Neutrons are very effective projectiles but, given their neutral charge, they are difficult to guide to hit the target. For this reason, neutron therapy has been taken out of commission in most medical centres. However, combining the particle's natural biomedical properties with iThemba's decades-long expertise, the African research facility has been able to use neutron therapy very successfully for certain types of cancerous tumours, particularly those that are large and slow-growing.


by Katarina Anthony