Researchers at the European Science Laboratory CERN, World Health Organization They regularly use particle physics to challenge our understanding of the universe, and they also apply their craft to push the boundaries of cancer treatment.
The physicists here are working with giant particle accelerators in search of ways to expand radiotherapy for cancer, dealing with hard-to-reach tumors that would otherwise be fatal.
In a CERN lab, called CLEAR, facility coordinator Roberto Corsini stands next to a large linear particle accelerator consisting of a 40-meter metal beam with aluminum-foil-packed tubes at one end, a wide range of measuring instruments and prominently colored wires and cables.
The research here aims to create high-energy beams of electrons – the negatively charged particles in the nucleus of an atom – that could eventually help fight cancer cells more effectively, he told AFP during a recent visit.
Corsini explained that they are looking for “a technology to accelerate electrons to the energies needed to treat deep tumors, which are above 100 million electron volts” (MeV).
The idea is to use these high-energy electrons (VHEE) along with a new and promising treatment method called FLASH. Minimizing “collateral damage” This method entails delivering the radiation dose in a few hundred thousandths of a second, rather than minutes as in the current approach.
This has been shown to have the same devastating effect on the target tumor, but causes much less damage to surrounding healthy tissue.
With conventional radiotherapy, “some collateral damage occurs,” said Benjamin Fisch, knowledge transfer officer at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).
He told reporters that the effect of the short and intense FLASH treatment is to “reduce toxicity to healthy tissues while appropriately damaging cancer cells.”
FLASH was first used on patients in 2018, based on currently available medical linear accelerators, linacs, that deliver low-power electron beams of about 6-10 MeV.
At such low energy, the beams cannot penetrate deeply, which means that a highly effective treatment has so far been used only in superficial tumors found in melanoma.
But physicists at CERN are now collaborating with the University Hospital of Lausanne (CHUV) to build a FLASH delivery machine that can accelerate electrons to 100 to 200 MeV, making it possible to use the method for hard-to-reach tumours. Today, deep carcinomas that cannot be removed with surgery, chemotherapy or conventional radiotherapy are often considered a death sentence.
“Those that we do not treat at the moment are the targets,” Professor Jan Boorhees, head of radiology at CHUV, told AFP.
“For those particular cancers, which may be a third of all cancers, it could be a game changer.”
There are particular hopes that the FLASH method, with its less harmful effect on surrounding tissues, could make it possible to track down tumors in the brain or near other vital organs.
He may not refer deaths from intractable cancers to the history books, Burhas said, “but at least there will be a new opportunity for more treatments, if they work.” One “compact” challenge is making the powerful accelerator compact enough to fit inside a hospital.
At CERN, a large gallery is dedicated to housing the CLEAR accelerator, which requires 20 meters to push electrons to the desired energy level – and another 20 meters to condition, measure and deliver the beam.
But Corsini insisted that CERN had the know-how to “accelerate into a tighter space”.
The prototype being built with CHUV will aim to do the same task using a machine with a total length of 10 metres.
This “compact” solution, Corsini said, “reduces cost, reduces energy consumption and versatility, and you can easily place it in a hospital without having to build an entire building.”
Construction of the prototype is set to begin next February, and clinical trials for patients could begin in 2025, Borhas said, “if all goes smoothly.”
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