Researchers Develop Irradiation With High-speed Protons To Fight Cancer

Irradiation using fast protons is found to be a more effective and less invasive method to treat cancer, when compared to X-rays. However, modern proton therapy needs large particle accelerators, so cancer researchers are looking into alternative accelerator concepts like laser systems to speed up the protons. Such systems are deployed in pre-clinical studies to make way for optimal radiation therapy.

A research team led by the Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf or HZDR has now tested successfully irradiation with laser protons on animals for the first time, as the group reports in the journal Nature Physics.

Radiation therapy is considered to be one of the main cancer treatment methods. It usually makes use of strong, focused X-ray light. Protons, which are the nuclei of hydrogen atoms, accelerated to high energies and huddled up into small, precisely targetable bunches are an alternative. They can penetrate deep into the tissue where they deposit most of their energy in the tumor, destroying the cancer while leaving the surrounding tissue largely intact. This makes the method highly effective and less invasive than X-ray therapy.

"The method is particularly suitable for irradiating tumors at the base of the skull, in the brain, and in the central nervous system," explains HZDR researcher Elke Beyreuther. "It is also used in pediatric cancer patients to reduce possible long-term effects, researchers added. However, the method is considered to be more complex than X-ray therapy as it requires elaborate accelerator facilities to create the fast protons and transport them to the patient. This is why there are only a few proton therapy centers in Germany, including the one at Dresden University Hospital. At present, experts are working to steadily improve the method and make it suitable for patients. Laser-based proton accelerators could make a decisive contribution here.

Commenting on the developments, HZDR physicist Florian Kroll said, "The approach is based on a high-power laser to generate strong and extremely short light pulses, which are fired at a thin plastic or metal foil. The intensity of these flashes knocks swathes of electrons out of the foil, creating a strong electric field that can bundle protons into pulses and accelerate them to high energies. Fascinatingly, the scale of this process is miniscule: The acceleration path is merely a few micro-meters long."

Researchers went on to say, ""We have been working on the project for 15 years, but so far, the protons hadn't picked up enough energy for irradiation. Also, the pulse intensity was too variable, so we couldn't make sure we were delivering the right dose. But over the past few years, scientists finally achieved crucial improvements, in particular thanks to a better understanding of the interaction between the laser flashes and the foil.

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