The winning alliance

The ICTR-PHE 2012 conference, which closed its doors today after five busy days, sealed the alliance between the physics and medical communities. We have come a long way since 1977, when physicist David Townsend took the first PET images of a small mouse. Today, physicists are developing new detector techniques that medical doctors can transfer to the clinic in fields that are no longer confined to cancer treatment. Several powerful and innovative solutions for better healthcare are on their way.


An overwhelming number of proposals for improving virtually all aspects of cancer treatment was presented at the ICTR-PHE 2012: from new detectors and read-out solutions for implementation in the next generation of imaging instrumentation to accelerator-based facilities for the production of new isotopes for use both as radio-tracers and as drugs. And this is not all, because the issues that were discussed at the joint conference also included new uses of enhanced PET-CT imaging for cardiovascular disease.

The feeling is that we are at the beginning of a totally new approach to healthcare. The instruments currently used in medical imaging (PET, PET-CT, MRI) are powerful tools used by doctors to identify malignant cells. However, as doctors speaking at the conference pointed out, tumours are complex diseases that require ad hoc solutions. The treatment strategy may change depending on the specific metabolism and metastatic status of the patient. The need to evaluate each specific case is taking on primary importance in the medical environment. And technology is following and sometimes anticipating clinical needs. As an example, a combination of PET and MRI techniques is now able to provide information about the nature of tumours and metastases, and even their metabolism.

In parallel, physicists are experimenting with a wider range of radioisotopes for use as tracers for specific tumours, and as vehicles for bringing radiation directly to targeted malignant cells once injected into the body or shot from an accelerator. They are designing new accelerator facilities or adapting the existing ones for what is emerging as a complementary mission to that of resolving the fundamental mysteries still held by the Universe.

CERN was strongly represented at the ICTR-PHE 2012 conference thanks to its widespread participation in medical physics-related projects funded by the EU and its involvement in a number of projects relating to the development of detectors, read-out techniques and particle acceleration solutions. Virtually all areas of CERN are involved: LEIR, ISOLDE, several groups in the PH Department, the Knowledge Transfer Group in the Finance Department, the radiation experts in HSE and certainly many other members of the CERN Community at large. In the next issue, the Bulletin will give you a more comprehensive account of the presentations and discussions that took place at the conference, together with a video that will highlight some of the many interesting contributions.

The message that physicists need to play an even greater role in the fight for better healthcare came across very strongly at the public talk given by Søren M. Bentzen, professor of human oncology at the University of Wisconsin. He said that a brand-new science is being created by the collaboration between and overlap of physics, biology, chemistry, computer science, etc. He referred to it as “clinical biophysics”. This is a field which uses research methods that do not naturally exist in any of the single natural sciences that contribute to it. Physicists, he said, should have a central role.

To find out more, watch a short video interview with Professor Bentzen:

If you missed the public lecture given by Professor Bentzen on Tuesday 28 February, you might be interested in watching the recording:

by Antonella Del Rosso