We typically think of CERN as a place for a specialized device — made for particle physics alone. While this is the main attraction, accelerator technology is also used to research new medical devices and techniques.
CERN has launched development on a new cancer radiotherapy facility capable of enhancing a cancer-fighting medical technique called FLASH radiotherapy — using accelerator technology developed at CERN — which fires high-energy electrons to combat tumors, according to a blog post on CERN's official website.
CERN's cancer treatment leaves healthy tissue unaffected
The result is a highly-targeted form of cancer treatment capable of reaching deep into the patient’s tissues with fewer side effects. FLASH radiotherapy delivers a high dose of radiation in milliseconds instead of the minutes-long wait these kinds of treatments typically demand. This means the tumor is targeted and destroyed in the same way accomplished with radiotherapy — but without damaging healthy tissue.
This new development program was launched in collaboration with the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) in Switzerland, to develop a new cancer radiotherapy facility that could be a game-changer.
“In 2018, CHUV showed complete disappearance of a tumor in a resistant superficial skin cancer, with nearly no side effects. This first for FLASH treatment on humans accelerated the clinical translation of FLASH therapy,” explained Prof. Bourhis, Head of Radiation Oncology at CHUV, in a statement on the CERN website.
New cancer treatment dosage takes less than a second
FLASH radiotherapy can also deliver the required dose of radiation in just a few sessions — each lasting less than a second, rather than multiple sessions of a few minutes each. However, the technique encountered one main issue: acquiring high-energy electrons using compact linear accelerators.
CERN and CHUV then came up with a unique solution to this problem that stems from the conceptual design of a unique apparatus based on the CLIC (Compact Linear Collider) accelerator technology. CLIC has the advantage of accelerating electrons to treat tumors up to 5.9 to 7.8 inches (15 to 20 cm) in depth.
“Using the CLIC high-performance linear electron accelerator technology, we designed a facility which is capable of treating large and deep-seated tumors in the very short timescales needed for FLASH therapy,” explained Walter Wuensch, project leader at CERN.
Notably, the technology has become compact enough for use in hospitals. So it seems CERN projects — while extremely high-tech — are more practical than we typically think.
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article described thinking of CERN "as a specialized device." This is ambiguous and can mislead the reader into mistaking CERN for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a device located in CERN (a place). It has since been corrected. IE regrets this error.