Taking biomedical research at CERN to the next level

1954 was an eventful year, seeing as it did the start of two scientific strands that would eventually intertwine. That was not only the year that CERN was founded, but also the year in which John Lawrence first used protons accelerated in his brother Ernest’s cyclotron to treat cancer. The idea was not new; it was first put forward by Robert Wilson, founder of both the Cornell Laboratory of Nuclear Studies and Fermilab, who in 1946 pointed out that protons might be more effective at dealing with certain cancers than X-rays.


It’s an idea that took a long time to mature. Treatment with radioactive isotopes had begun as early as the 1930s, with accelerated particles being a later addition to the clinician’s armoury. John Lawrence himself acknowledged in a 1956 paper that: “Even though the achievements in prolongation of life and cures in cancer have not been great so far, one should not dismiss too lightly the contributions of artificial radioactivity and nuclear radiations in cancer therapy. The clinician should not underestimate the importance of relief from pain and extension of comfortable life, and here their value is well established.”

But in medicine as in particle physics, patience is more than a virtue, and in 1994, 20 years ago, the world’s first dedicated carbon-ion therapy centre was established in Chiba, Japan. Were he alive today, Lawrence would have been able to modify his 1956 words and say that protons, or more accurately, hadrons, have now clearly demonstrated their worth in prolonging life.

CERN comes into this story in the 1990s. By then, hadrontherapy centres had been established in many places, notably at Harvard and Loma Linda in the USA, at TRIUMF in Canada, at GSI in Germany and at PSI in Switzerland, and the emerging field had many champions in the particle physics community. CERN embarked on a study to design an accelerator optimised to deliver a steady dose of particles, protons or heavier ions, as the medical therapy requires. Baptised the Proton-Ion Medical Machine Study, PIMMS, this has gone on to form the basis of dedicated centres being established in Italy, and soon in Austria.

This week has seen the second in a series of conferences that bring together the medical community with the physics community, ICTR-PHE 2014, with the goal of allowing clinicians to understand what physics can offer, and physicists to understand what clinicians need. The conference covers all areas of potential overlap between the fields, but I’ve focussed on hadron therapy because here we could be at a turning point. One thing that emerged strongly from the first ICTR-PHE conference two years ago is that the LEIR ring is an ideal test bed for studying a range of ions for potential therapeutic use, and for that reason we’re launching the BioLEIR initiative to allow LEIR to carry out this vital task during the 11 months of the year that it’s not supplying lead ions to the LHC. This initiative will require external funding, but it’s an exciting prospect for CERN to take knowledge transfer to the next level.

Rolf Heuer

If you are looking for my remarks on the Future Circular Collider Study Kick-off Meeting, please click here.