Hadron therapy takes off in Europe

A joint meeting of ULICE, ENLIGHT and PARTNER recently took place in Marburg (Germany). The three initiatives are shaping both the present and the future of hadron therapy in Europe, where new cutting-edge facilities have started to fight cancer with beams of protons and carbon ions.


A pictorial representation of a raster scan on a tumour. (Photo courtesy of HIT/GSI/Siemens.)

Thanks to a very active multidisciplinary community consisting of physicists, biologists, radiobiologists, engineers, IT specialists and medical doctors, hadron therapy is taking off in Europe. Indeed, after a few decades during which the innovative technique was mainly used experimentally in Japan, the US and a couple of pioneering laboratory-based facilities in Europe, today an increasing number of hospitals are being equipped with synchrotrons and dedicated treatment rooms. “Asia and Europe are at the forefront of research and use of carbon ions in the treatment of some rare and radio-resistant tumours,” confirms Marco Durante from the Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung (GSI, Germany). “On the other hand, in the US, it’s becoming almost routine to use protons instead of the conventional radio treatment with photons.”

The advantage of using protons and ions instead of photons resides in the fact that, thanks to their fundamental properties, they have proven to be more focused projectiles. Carefully guided by cutting-edge equipment, they can deposit a large amount of energy in a tumour and only a small amount in the surrounding tissues, which thus have a much better chance of remaining healthy. “An increasing number of hospitals in Europe are investing in hadron-therapy facilities, which involve clinicians as well as physicists, biologists and engineers. It is of paramount importance to share data, information and best practices, as well as information on treatment procedures, protocols and strategies. For this reason, back in 2002 the various communities came together to set up ENLIGHT, the European Network for LIGht ion Hadron Therapy, which was funded by the EC for three years,” says Manjit Dosanjh, who now coordinates ENLIGHT++, which builds on the ENLIGHT mission and continues without funding. Manjit, who is in charge of life sciences at CERN within the Knowledge Transfer group, continues: “In Marburg, members of the ENLIGHT community were able to touch base on the progress that has been made and were also able to start planning for the future. The whole community is taking advantage of the exchanges between the institutes and this, of course, translates into better treatment for patients.”

A patient undergoing radiotherapy treatment at the Genolier clinic.

“Hadron therapy is proving very effective in fighting certain types of cancer," adds Manjit. “The Heidelberg Ion Therapy Centre (HIT) in Germany is using protons and carbon ions with very encouraging results. The community is currently aiming to treat patients in larger numbers and with increased efficiency. This will very likely open a way towards more cost-effective solutions.”

The sharing of clinical experience and the complex technical aspects of hadron-therapy treatment are also an important pillar of the Union of Light Ion Centres in Europe (ULICE) programme, the EU-funded project that responds to the need for greater access to facilities, in particular those using light ions. “One of the aims of ULICE is to provide patients and their referring physicians, as well as researchers, with access to hadron beams at particle treatment facilities,” says Roberto Orecchia, Scientific Director of CNAO, Director of the Radiotherapy Division at the European Institute of Oncology (IEO) and ULICE project co-ordinator. “At the meeting in Marburg, members of the ULICE community were able to touch base on the first results that the transnational access activities are bringing to the project. This is exemplified by a recent project that will bring French patients to HIT. New opportunities will also be offered soon by our institute in Italy.”

“The possibility for researchers to see what is being done by other experts is essential for the development of new instruments and protocols,” confirms Richard Poetter from the Medical University of Vienna, chairman of the ESTRO Training and Education Committee and co-ordinator of the Joint Research Activities pillar of ULICE. “Under the umbrella of ULICE, scientists from different disciplines and countries are working on new gantry designs, novel adaptive treatment planning and common protocols for patient selection. We also plan to develop a shared database for specific tumours which can best be treated using carbon ions.”

The Marburg meeting also dedicated half a day to presentations by the PARTNER researchers, summarising what the young professionals involved have achieved so far. “Thanks to PARTNER, 25 young biologists, engineers, physicians and physicists are working with leading European institutes to explore new avenues for more effective treatment of cancer with particles,” states Manjit Dosanjh, who is also the co-ordinator of the project. During the presentations, the researchers showed the latest results on a variety of different subjects that ranged from the response of the cell cycle to particle beams, their role in combination with chemotherapy, and the possibility of developing image-guided hadron-therapy treatment.

Together with Japan and other countries in Asia and several centres in the US, Europe is leading the efforts to fight cancer with particles. After several years of research and testing, European oncology is reaping the fruit of its investments.

Further reading:

  • A collection of articles showing the role of CERN in the development of hadron therapy is available here. In particular, you will find information about CNAO and MedAustron – the two facilities whose design is based on PIMMS, the pioneering accelerator study for hadron therapy developed at CERN. 

  • The first joint ICTR-PHE conference ("Uniting physics, biology and medicine for better health care") in February 2012.

ENLIGHT:Hadron-therapy in Europe

PARTNER: A training program for hadron therapy

by CERN Bulletin