ICTR-PHE 2016: Strength in numbers

The third biennial ICTR-PHE medical conference (see here) concluded last Friday, 19 February, once again on a very successful note. More than 400 participants from all over the world met over five days and then returned to their home institutes with new ideas, new collaboration prospects and optimistic visions for the future of cancer therapy.


During the week, the participants had the opportunity to look at the 80 posters presented by young researchers. (Image: Salvatore Fiore)

During the five-day conference, a large spectrum of topics was covered – radiobiology, nuclear medicine, detectors and imaging, new technologies etc.– and a large amount of new research was presented. “I’ve been impressed by many wonderful lectures, which promise great progress in the future,” says Jacques Bernier, Chair of the Department of Radio-Oncology at the Genolier Clinic in Geneva and co-chair of the conference with CERN’s Manjit Dosanjh. “It’s really important to bring the physics, biology and medical communities together to work and brainstorm with each other,” adds Dosanjh. “This year, I’ve seen some great examples of this collaboration presented here for the first time.”

Some topics sparked particular interest among the audience, for example the studies on prompt gamma imaging presented by Thomas Bortfeld (Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School), Christian Richter (Helmholtz Zentrum of Dresden), Saad Aldawood (Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich and King Saud University of Riyadh) and Brent Huisman (Université de Lyon) (creator of one of the six winning ICTR-PHE posters). In particle beam therapy, the finite range of the beam can be a double-edged sword, as any over- or under-shoot of the beam requires extra margins in order to spare healthy tissue. But this can compromise dose distribution and the effectiveness of the therapy. This is why considerable effort is being made to develop imaging techniques for beam range assessment, and prompt gamma imaging appears to be the most promising solution. Based on the detection of secondary gamma radiation emitted from the nuclear reactions of protons with tissue, it would allow real-time detection of the position of the beam in the patient’s body (during treatment) with an accuracy of about 1 mm. With such precision, the range margins could be reduced, resulting in a significant improvement in treatment quality.

Philippe Lambin of the University Medical Centre of Maastricht (Netherlands) tackled another promising topic, and one we are very familiar with at CERN: big data. In a recent study, he showed how distributed learning can be a solution for rapid learning healthcare. “Rapid learning” is defined as the use of data routinely generated through patient care and clinical research to feed an ever-growing database. Thanks to this database, researchers hope to be able to develop mathematical models – following the example of weather models – capable of “predicting the future”.

The presentation on the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) for external beam radiotherapy guidance, by Jan Lagendijk of the University Medical Centre of Utrecht (Netherlands), also opened the audience’s eyes to new perspectives. Lagendijk explained that, although for certain tumours it is possible to visualise cancerous structures effectively using cone beam computed tomography linac (CT-linac) radiotherapy systems, this is not the case for all tumours. Online and real-time MRI guidance may allow better imaging and thus improved targeting of these tumours. This could provide a breakthrough in the application of radiotherapy and redefine the relationship between radiotherapy and surgery.

“We look forward to seeing this research translate into real-life clinical applications,” concludes Dosanjh. “From the lab to the patient! That’s the motto of the ICTR-PHE conference.”

For more information and an overview of presentations at ICTR-PHE 2016, visit the ICTR-PHE blog or watch the conference's highlights video.

by Anaïs Schaeffer