Physicists develop more powerful tools to combat cancer

The tools physicists are currently sharing with doctors to defeat cancer are high-tech sensors for early detection and particles for use as sharp projectiles. The latest advances in medical physics and some of the most sophisticated devices for imaging, monitoring and treatment were presented at the ICTR-PHE 2012 conference. They will shape the future of advanced healthcare.


Some of the most futuristic research in medical physics was presented at ICTR-PHE 2012, the five-day conference that brought together physics, biology and medicine. Special emphasis was placed on medical imaging devices, currently used for diagnosis but with the potential to provide crucial real-time monitoring of treatment in the future.

Higher-quality imaging means early detection of disease and therefore better chances of recovery and better outcomes. Today, several medical centres in Europe are equipped with Positron Emission Tomography (PET) or PET-CT scanners and Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) devices. Tomorrow, the winning solution could be a combination of the two. Geneva’s University Hospitals (HUG) and the New York Hospital are successfully testing a combination of PET and MRI. The Erasmus Medical Centre in The Netherlands is studying the possibility of combining PET and Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT) in the framework of the Applied Molecular Imaging Erasmus MC (AMIE) project.

Physicists are designing the new-generation detectors to be implemented in the imaging devices. They must be highly reliable and extremely accurate and provide a very fast response to allow the medical instruments to provide real-time information. New solid-state detectors could have these features. They are currently under study at CERN and in other physics laboratories. “The Holy Grail would be a detector with a time resolution of 10 pico-seconds,” said Dennis Schaart, a medical doctor from Delft University of Technology. “The materials and the knowledge we have at the moment suggest that this goal could be achieved in a not-too-distant future.”

Physicists are also designing new solutions to produce isotopes for use as radio-tracers and for  treatment. Scientists have observed that different tracers show a different efficiency depending on the specific type of tumour. Future tracers might be able to indicate diseased or abnormal cells with increased precision and, by using the appropriate imaging device, could even provide information about the tumour’s specific metabolism. This information would be of great help to doctors, who have to define the most effective treatment. MEDICIS is a CERN project that plans to use the protons sent to the ISOLDE facility for the production of very rarely generated isotopes that could be implemented in this type of application.

Isotopes and alpha particles could also be used as vehicles to bring the killing radiation dose to the cancerous cells. Closely related is the development of new strategies for a better distribution of irradiation, aimed at giving the highest dose to the most resistant tissues such as the hypoxic ones that characterize late-stage cancers. The conference highlighted the “Dose Painting” and “LET Painting” approaches, which maximize the targeting efficiency and minimize the damage to the surrounding healthy tissues.

The ICTR-PHE conference also featured presentations about the hadron-therapy centres currently in operation in Europe. One of them, the Heidelberg Ion Therapy centre in Germany, is pioneering the use of carbon ions in cancer treatment Europe-wide. Its clinical results will help to define the future treatment protocols for several types of tumours that are not readily treated with existing  methods, including proton and traditional radiotherapy.

On the third day of the joint conference, physicists gave the floor to medical doctors. Marco Durante, a physicist from GSI, closed his talk during the summary sessions by saying: “Physics can lead to significant technical improvements in healthcare but biology can lead to breakthroughs”. On the last two days, the baton passed on to the life science experts. A second article in the next issue of the Bulletin will feature this part of the conference.

Here is a video summary of the ICTR-PHE 2012 conference:

by Antonella Del Rosso and Fabio Capello