Particle physics: a valuable driver of innovation in medicine… and physics

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the European Network for Light Ion Therapy (ENLIGHT), which is a good occasion a look back over the important contributions particle physics has made to medicine over the years. It’s hard to know exactly where to start, but since this year also marks the 20th anniversary of Georges Charpak’s Nobel Prize, that seems as good a place as any.


Charpak’s prize was a long time coming. It was awarded for “his invention and development of particle detectors, in particular the multiwire proportional chamber” in 1968. Over the following years, these devices transformed particle physics, allowing particle collisions to be recorded electronically instead of optically, and they led to a wide range of electronic particle detection techniques in use today. All this was duly noted by the Nobel committee, which also pointed out Charpak’s energy in applying the technology to medicine. Today, Charpak-like detectors are ubiquitous in hospitals, and the legacy lives on in the form of the Medipix collaboration, which develops state-of-the-art pixel detectors for both particle physics and medicine.

Another long running strand begins in the 1970s, when CERN scientists helped build a PET scanner for the Geneva Cantonal Hospital. Today, PET scanners are bought off-the-shelf, but many of them rely on crystal detector technologies developed for the L3 experiment at LEP in the 1980s, and some are able to carry out MRI scans as well as PET thanks to electronics developed with industry by CMS.

So what of ENLIGHT? The examples above are all about diagnosis, but particle beams can provide effective cancer treatment. Robert Wilson, founder of Fermilab, was one of the first to recognise this when he pointed out that proton beams, for example, could be tuned to deposit all their energy in a tumour causing limited damage to surrounding healthy tissue. Less than 10 years later, in 1954, the first patient was treated with proton-therapy at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (USA). In 1957, the first european patient was treated at the University of Uppsala (Sweden), and a few years later, the National Institute of Radiological Sciences (NIRS) in Japan began research on carbon therapy.

The already limited damage of particle therapy is further reduced for light ions, and has been successfully demonstrated in research labs such as GSI in Germany, PSI in Switzerland and TRIUMF in Canada. In the 1990s, CERN recognised a need for a dedicated accelerator design for such facilities, and the Proton Ion Medical Machine Study, PIMMS, was born. Today, the PIMMS design lies at the heart of a number of facilities, including the Italian hadron therapy centre, CNAO, which recently treated its first patient with ions.

ENLIGHT was created to build on the link between particle physics and medicine, and over its first 10 years, had marked a number of successes including the launch of a new kind of conference bringing physicists and doctors together. This kind of collaboration is valuable for medicine, and invaluable for particle physics. It is a tangible deliverable from basic science to society, and developments stemming from our technology are often picked up by industry and refined into better products for our research.

Rolf Heuer