Accelerating innovation…in medicine

An upcoming series of seminars will highlight the potential of particle-phyics research for applications in medicine, says Steve Myers


Six months have passed since CERN took a significant step towards formalising the transfer of knowledge from particle physics to medicine, with the establishment of the Office for CERN Medical Applications. Over the past years CERN has hosted many activities in the medical domain though an official framework was lacking.    

I was amazed by the extent and variety of the efforts I discovered when I started liaising with the various departments and groups: our everyday tools – accelerators, detectors, computing – all have a remarkable potential for use in many areas of medicine. Our talent for collaboration, so essential in the particle physics community, is another asset for medicine.  

Particle physicists have many of the necessary ingredients to dream of an integrated approach to treating cancer, one of today’s greatest societal challenges. We at CERN can help to develop a range of techniques, including: novel accelerators for hadron therapy, simulations, dosimetry, beam delivery, imaging for diagnosis and dose monitoring, novel isotopes for diagnosis and treatment, and ion beams for radiobiology studies. The aim is to make each technique individually faster, cheaper, more precise and reliable, and to make them work together seamlessly.

CERN and particle physics may also be able to make significant contributions to diseases other than cancer. Cutting-edge imaging techniques are needed to diagnose and study atherosclerosis, for example, as well as many age-related disorders. The future may even bring unforeseen applications of particle beams to neurological diseases.

All of these exciting developments require a continuous exchange and collaboration with the leading experts and pioneers in the relevant fields, so that we continuously tune our agenda to that of the medical world. While of course we are establishing formal structures, such as an international strategy committee, it is important to promote a culture of multidisciplinary exchange. For this reason, we are launching a new series of seminars on medical applications, which will build upon and expand an old proposal of CERN’s Life Sciences team. It is an intriguing coincidence that this year marks the 60th anniversary both of CERN and of the first proton treatment of a cancer patient in Berkeley, and our first speaker is LBNL biophysicist Eleanor Blakely, who has been working in the field since the 70’s. Later in the year, we will have talks from Ugo Amaldi, former spokesperson of the Delphi collaboration and an influential figure in hadron therapy, and from Douglas Hanahan, head of the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research (ISREC).

This new initiative will ensure that both the particle physics community and the general public will be aware of the newest challenges and developments in medical applications.

Register for the first seminar: "Reflections and Perspectives on 60 years of particle therapy" – Eleanor Blakely, Senior Staff Biophysicist, Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory