Three tasks for physicists in the name of health

The first “Physics for Health” workshop was organized at CERN in February 2010. It successfully showed the big potential that particle accelerators and detectors have in serving as instruments for early diagnosis and effective treatment of tumours. The conference participants expressed the wish that CERN be involved in three innovative projects. One year later, it’s time to touch base on the assignments and prepare for a new edition of the conference, which will be held in Geneva in February 2012.


The three actions that were discussed in the first Physics for Health workshop were very specific and included: a new research facility for biomedical uses, the launch of a new study for a compact and low-cost accelerator for hadron therapy, and the creation of a European distributed user facility for the production of innovative radioisotopes. “CERN has a lot of expertise in all of these fields and it is seen as a ‘neutral’ ground by the various communities involved,” explains Steve Myers, CERN Director for Accelerators and member of Physics for Health Organizing Committee. “Our role is not to build the future machines for medical applications but to coordinate and prompt feasibility studies for future developments. We want to be a centre that helps catalyse collaborations and co-ordination, and we hope that institutions, such as the EU, will support us with these new initiatives.”

Some of the existing CERN facilities could indeed be partially adapted to be used for medical applications. “We are studying the possibility of using LEIR since it is well suited to be converted into a facility providing a range of ions and energies both for radiobiology and detector developments, and it is only used for LHC operation for part of the year,” says Manjit Dosanjh, in charge of life-science related projects at CERN within the Knowledge Transfer group. “Although particles – in particular protons and carbon ions – have been successfully used in cancer treatment over many years, the medical community is still lacking systematic studies on the biological impact that different particles at different energies have on cells and other biological material. We are also missing information on the additional role of drugs and oxygen with particles that could possibly improve the effectiveness of the treatment. With the new slow ejection channel and beamline from LEIR, we could set up dedicated experiments in a relatively short time. We are currently aiming at starting the first ones by the end of this year.” Initially, only a few types of ions will be delivered by LEIR for radiobiology experiments. But in the longer term, and given interest and support from the communities involved, CERN could also think of building a more versatile front-end to the accelerator and produce a wider variety of beams.

In addition to exploring possible new projectiles to zap cancer cells, the scientific community needs to work on reducing the costs of the machines that will accelerate them. The second task CERN was assigned after the first Physics for Health workshop was the launch and co-ordination of a study to design the future accelerator to be used in hadrontherapy. “The new study will be called PIMMS2 and it’s the follow-up of PIMMS, the Proton Ion Medical Machine Study led by CERN between 1995 and 1999,” explains Daniel Brandt, in charge of the project. “The new study will aim at designing an accelerator complex (accelerator, transfer lines and gantries), which will have to be compact, use a reliable technology, and fulfil the most recent medical requirements. The overall cost to build it will also have to be relatively low.” Phase one of the project has already started and a call for proposals was recently sent to the scientific community. “We are already starting to receive inputs on this. The pool of European experts we are setting up will decide on the type of the future machine by February 2012, in time to present our results at the next edition of Physics for Health,” adds Brandt. The step after that is the actual design of the new facility, eventually delivering the Conceptual Design Report by end-2013.

Radioisotopes are playing an increasingly important role not just in cancer diagnosis, but also in treatment. Companies, hospitals and research centres are carrying out many research projects on this field. Dewi Lewis, a renowned isotope expert, will coordinate the third task from Physics for Health, which aims at creating a European network of institutes and companies involved in radioisotopes research. “Our aim is to define a common research programme that could be carried out in a co-ordinated way to achieve the best results in the production of innovative radioisotopes,” explains Steve Myers.

The first Physics for Health workshop opened a new era of collaboration between physicists and medical doctors, laying the foundations for better mutual understanding and dedicated common efforts for the good of health. The follow-up of the workshop will be the ICTR-PHE 2012 conference, which will be held in Geneva, 27 February - 2 March, 2012. The conference is the result of the merging of the ICTR medical conference – whose objective is to update the radiation oncology community on the most recent advances in translational research – and the Physics for Health in Europe workshop. “The reason for bringing the two conferences together is to catalyse stimulating exchanges and interactions between experts in various fields, from biology and physics to clinical medicine. These novel synergies will be the ‘red thread’ that ICTR-PHE 2012 will follow during these 5 days,” concludes Manjit Dosanjh, one of the ICTR-PHE 2012 chairs. The second chair of the joint conference is Professor Jacques Bernier, whom the Bulletin will interview later in the year in order to give voice to the medical community. “Medicine is increasingly dependent on cutting-edge technology developments. It is therefore timely that the medical and research communities come together to work on common projects," he comments.

The abstract submission deadline for participating in ICTR-PHE 2012 is October 3, 2011. All information can be found on the conference website.

by CERN Bulletin