Uniting forces in physics and medicine

Following the very successful ‘Physics for Health’ workshop held at CERN on 2-4 February this year, a strategy document has recently been issued. It outlines the main issues discussed at the workshop and indicates the most promising avenues in the field of medical applications derived from physics.

Rolf Heuer, CERN Director General talks to the participants in the “Physics for Health in Europe” workshop.

The response to the first “Physics for Health in Europe” workshop was enthusiastic: more than 400 scientists from 32 countries signed up, submitting 200 abstracts within a few weeks. Between fifty and a hundred people were connected to the live webcast at all times. “We had to close the registration before the planned deadline since the capacity of CERN’s main auditorium had been reached”, says Manjit Dosanjh from the organizing committee. Participants included physicists, medical doctors, experts in radioisotopes and policy makers.

“Physics for Health in Europe” workshop at CERN.

Although physics research is at the origin of an increasing number of medical techniques used for the early diagnosis and treatment of tumors and other diseases, the workshop was a novel initiative to bring medical doctors and physicists together to discuss global strategies. “CERN was a natural host for such a workshop”, says Manjit Dosanjh. “It is a neutral ground scientifically and most European countries have access and participate in CERN activities”. “CERN has a long tradition in developing instruments for use in medicine”, adds Ugo Amaldi, member of the scientific programme committee. “It’s here that David Townsend and Alan Jeavons took the first PET image in 1977. Also, making use of the CERN facilities and beams we have developed the accelerating modules, which are the heart of CNAO, the hadron therapy centre recently inaugurated in Italy, and MEDAustron, a similar centre currently under construction in Austria”.

A guided tour of CNAO, the recently inaugurated hadron therapy centre in Italy.

The strategy document that the workshop produced focuses on the following areas: radiobiology, radioisotopes, medical imaging, and new technologies that should be developed. Several new ideas were presented at the workshop. One proposal is to create a facility at CERN to provide particle beams of different types and energies to external users interested in radiobiology and detector development. “We are studying the possible options”, says Marco Silari from the DGS Department who presented the project at the workshop. “We originally thought that the AD could be used but we are also investigating other possibilities, such as the LEIR, which is probably a better solution for ions other than protons”.

One of the most important conclusions of the workshop was the proposal that CERN should launch and coordinate the activities of an international collaboration centred on a new low-cost facility for hadron therapy using the most advanced technologies (such as superconductivity), with the aim of participating not only in the design but also in construction. “This new study of an accelerator for cancer therapy will be similar to the Proton-Ion Medical Machine Study (PIMMS) started in 1996”, explains Ugo Amaldi. The strategy document also highlights the importance of building a consortium of European research facilities that could supply innovative radioisotopes to groups which develop radiopharmaceuticals for diagnostics and therapy. Several facilities could participate in such a consortium; certainly CERN’s ISOLDE is one.

A short video tour of the recently inaugurated hadron therapy centre in Heidelberg (Germany).

The other area where physicists and medical doctors are working more and more closely together is imaging. A very promising idea that is currently being investigated by several teams around the world is to combine the techniques of MRI and PET. “The different instruments give you different information about the internal structure in the body”, says Gillies Mc Kenna from the Gray Institute for Radiation Oncology and Biology in the UK. And he adds: “These workshops in my experience are very useful because often medical doctors and physicists may not know which aspects of their work will be relevant to one another. Bringing groups together in a workshop can be a very useful way of initiating the teams that will address new scientific questions”.

The second Physics for Health in Europe workshop (PHEE12) will be held in 2012.

by CERN Bulletin