ICTR-PHE: converging sciences to corner cancer

Radio chemists, nuclear-medicine physicians, biologists, software developers, accelerator experts, oncologists, and detector physicists: the ICTR-PHE conference is an amazing confluence of experts from a variety of fields. Despite their diversified backgrounds, and their many scientific languages, they all share a common goal: fighting cancer with state-of-the-art techniques from their respective areas of expertise. Thinking outside the box is their speciality.


Head of CERN’s Medical Application Programme, Steve Myers addresses the ICTR-PHE conference.

If you are still picturing scientists as secretive people who live locked away in their lab and talk only to their peers, it’s time to upgrade to “Scientist 3.0”. At the ICTR-PHE conference, experts in radiochemistry working in hospitals ask CERN’s accelerator scientists to produce the isotopes they need to make innovative radiopharmaceuticals, and medical doctors in the audience stand up and ask: “When can we have them?” The perception from this second conference is that this is a truly unique environment.

Cancer is no single disease; it’s a multi-faceted one whose behaviour and evolution are specific to each patient. While the layman's perception is that medical protocols used to cure cancer are static and universal procedures, the discussions at ICTR-PHE demonstrate that the current trend in medicine is personalised treatment.  This implies a combined and co-ordinated approach in all phases – from imagery to pharmaceuticals and treatment planning. “We have to realise that the time when we were dealing with cancer with a single expert in oncology is over,” confirmed Michael Baumann from the University Hospital of Dresden.

The production of less toxic, more effective isotopes for clinical use and medical imaging was a hot topic at the conference. Specific isotopes with different dose delivery effectiveness are highly demanded by radiobiologists, who design and test new pharmaceuticals to improve the quality of medical imaging but also to be used as active projectiles against malignant cells. Again, since cancerous cells have various reactions to radiation, different tumours require different isotopes. Moreover, in some cases, the radiation sensitivity of malignant cells is found to depend on the presence of viruses. For example, it was observed that HPV improves the sensitivity in infected cells. In other cases, in vivo studies indicate that the use of radiotherapy and antibodies in a combined treatment could improve the prognosis of tumours not suffering from hypoxia.

The discussions also covered the clinical trials on hadrontherapy. The history of hadrontherapy is now long enough for physicians to have meaningful data to present and compare. Although randomised clinical trials remain a key issue, a lot has been done to define common protocols that allow the various centres to better compare their procedures and success rates.

The contribution of CERN to the field was highlighted in many lectures, including Ugo Amaldi’s public talk and the lecture by Steve Myers, recently appointed Head of CERN’s Medical Application Programme. The concrete new opportunities that are currently under discussion include the design of a compact, cost-effective and ready-to-use accelerator for medical applications as well as the construction of BioLEIR – the new facility that will provide particle beams of different types and energies to external users for radiobiology and detector development. And there is more: large-scale computing used for the acquisition and handling of LHC data would be highly beneficial to the medical field, which deals with increasingly large databases; the production of innovative isotopes for medical research could be carried out at the new MEDICIS facility; the development of new detection techniques could help reduce the cost of the existing instruments used in medical imagery. “The involvement of CERN in the development of medical applications coming from its core activities has been increasing over the years,” says Steve Myers. “However, we will need input from the medical community to build a win-win collaboration. Global participation is required and this is an open call to people worldwide to join in this endeavour.”

by Antonella Del Rosso