CERN collaborations open new horizons for cancer therapy

The quest for improved cancer treatment continues, as recent progress in medical technology brings humanity closer than ever to defeating its old foe. Among the technological advances is treatment of cancer with particle beams, which has helped to cure more than 260 000 patients to date. CERN, with its expertise in particle accelerators, has helped to push these technologies for decades. Now, new collaborations and projects are improving and democratising such treatment still further.

Particle therapy emerged from a dense network of accelerator facilities and medical labs. In the 1990s, CERN helped lay the theoretical groundwork with the PIMMS project (Proton-Ion Medical Machine Study), which underpinned the creation of Europe’s two main hadron-therapy treatment centres – namely, CNAO (Centro Nazionale di Adroterapia Oncologica) in Italy and MedAustron in Austria. These facilities use a particle accelerator to direct a beam of protons or heavy ions onto a tumour such that the energy is deposited at the tumour itself, avoiding harm to the surrounding tissue. This treatment is particularly effective for deeper, denser tumours, which would be out of reach using conventional methods.

Since 2019, CERN has been building on PIMMS with the Next Ion Medical Machine Study (NIMMS). “With NIMMS, we are working to improve accelerator designs for heavy ions, with higher intensities, in order to reduce treatment times and use smaller machines that reduce cost,” explains NIMMS project leader and CERN physicist Maurizio Vretenar. “This way, therapy with ions can be more widely available to cancer patients.”

NIMMS involves not only collaborating with CNAO and MedAustron, but also shaping the creation of the South East European International Institute for Sustainable Technologies (SEEIIST), a facility for cancer research and ion therapy planned in South-East Europe. Supporting NIMMS are a number of new projects, co-funded by the European Commission through the Horizon 2020 programme. They include HITRIplus, a research project on ion therapy that will support accelerator, gantry and superconducting magnet design, and the IFAST project for accelerator R&D, which includes activities with industry on superconducting magnets for ion therapy.

Another new European project, PRISMAP, will also harness CERN expertise for the benefit of medical applications. It brings together key facilities to provide high-purity new radionuclides and will include MEDICIS, a CERN experimental facility that produces novel radioisotopes for medical research. 

Through these studies, collaborations and new European projects, as well as CERN’s dedicated MEDICIS facility, particle physics expertise is pushing ever further the field of cancer research.

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For more details, see the recent CERN Courier article and feature.

Animation explaining the concept of cancer therapy using particle beams. 3D animation: Nymus3D. (Video: CERN)

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