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Researching a new generation of technology to treat cancer

publication date: Nov 4, 2022
author/source: The Science and Technology Facilities Council
LhARA: The laser and the laser-target vessel are housed in a shielded bunker (green structures). The capture line, composed of three Gabor lenses emerges, from the bunker and guides the beam to the acceleration system and biological research laboratories.


The UK is investing £2M to kick-start research on the next generation of radiotherapy treatments for cancer, through the development of the Ion Therapy Research Facility (ITRF).

The UK has driven important advances in cancer therapy and treats many patients successfully with radiotherapy, using both X-rays and protons. However some tumours remain difficult to treat.

Scientists believe that heavier particles, such as helium and carbon ions may offer therapeutic advantages in these situations, but further investigation is needed.   


World leading expertise

Organised through the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) Daresbury Laboratory, at Sci-Tech Daresbury, this £2m feasibility study, funded by UK Research and Innovation, brings together leading UK and international clinicians, scientists, engineers and industry.

It will exploit the UK’s advanced expertise in developing new laser technologies for medical applications, and specifically that of a UK-led collaboration, LhARA (Laser hybrid Accelerator for Radiobiological Applications).

Together, they will develop the design and planning for the ITRF, a world leading radiobiology research facility that will enable the research that will underpin the next generation of ion radiotherapy.


A powerful weapon against cancer

Radiotherapy treats many cancers effectively, delivered by accelerators that direct high-energy X-ray beams at a tumour to kill the cancer cells.

However, as radiotherapy beams pass through a patient, they have the potential to cause unwanted damage to normal tissue, which can lead to complications after treatment.

In contrast to conventional X-rays, ion beams stop within the tumour, dramatically reducing the dose to surrounding tissue, which is particularly useful when treating tumours near to critical organs.


What is ion radiotherapy?

Ion therapy involves accelerating ions, such as carbon, to around two-thirds of the speed of light in a particle accelerator.

As with X-rays, these ion beams are manipulated to deliver highly targeted, pulsed radiation doses to a tumour, killing the cancer cells.

Heavier ions, such as carbon, can give greater damage to some types of tumour that are resistant to more conventional treatments.


Next generation radiotherapy

The study will enable the design and planning for the ITRF to create a world leading UK radiobiology research facility, through which UK and international partners will pursue next generation treatments.

Harnessing unique acceleration techniques developed by LhARA, it will deliver intense ion beams with properties unattainable at any existing ion-therapy facility in the world today.

Ultimately, it will provide a state-of-the-art testbed through which academic, clinical and industrial communities will develop new technologies for delivering radiation treatment that is more:

  • precise
  • flexible
  • cost effective 

Paradigms for future treatments

Dr Hywel Owen, STFC project scientist on ITRF, said:

“In the UK around half of all people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, and radiotherapy is crucial for the successful treatment of nearly half of those patients.

Existing particle accelerator technology has helped our clinical colleagues to give the UK great advances in cancer survival, but we can do more.

Our partnership takes the UK’s world-leading accelerator science and will apply it to enabling new paradigms for future treatments.

Thanks to UKRI funding, this truly multidisciplinary project will help us deliver the basic research into ion radiobiology that will enable future methods of ion radiotherapy.”

Professor Neil Burnet, chair of the ITRF Advisory Committee, said:

“The funding of this first step for the Ion Therapy Research Facility is tremendously exciting in allowing accelerator technology to drive efforts to treat cancer more effectively and safely for the benefit of patients.”


Transformative concepts

Professor Ken Long from Imperial College, LhARA programme co-spokesperson, added:

“It is enormously exciting to have received UKRI funding for the development of LhARA.

In the next two years we will be able to develop our transformative laser-source concept, the plasma-lens beam-capture system, two key technologies that underpin our planned future capability at ITRF.”


Dynamic industrial partnerships

ITRF brings together the UK’s vibrant research base that has developed many advances in particle accelerators applicable to applications ranging from traditional ‘big science’ to medical science.

The project also brings close and valuable involvement of partners with significant experience of proton radiotherapy research, such as the Christie NHS Foundation Trust and the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre.

The UK’s partnership with CERN will also enable the ITRF to build on CERN’s extensive experience in medical applications.


A roadmap for the future

Professor Karen Kirkby, lead scientist at the proton therapy research programme across the University of Manchester and The Christie NHS Foundation Trust, said:

“This project builds on an initiative funded by UKRI which helped forge the vision and roadmap for the ITRF.

It is a brilliant opportunity to bring together a truly multidisciplinary community to work with accelerator scientists to develop an ITRF for the UK academic, clinical and research communities.

It will form a pipeline to the clinic, enabling us to target tumours that are currently very difficult to treat.”


Accelerating our understanding

Professor Jason Parsons, a radiobiologist from the University of Liverpool and leading scientist on ITRF and LhARA, said:

“This will greatly accelerate our understanding of how protons and ions interact and are effective in killing cancer cells, while simultaneously giving us experience of running the novel beam provided by the planned facility.

Together, the technology and the science will help us make a big step forward in optimising radiotherapy treatments for cancer patients.”


The UKRI Infrastructure Fund programme

The UKRI Infrastructure Fund supports the facilities, equipment and resources that are essential for researchers and innovators to do ground-breaking work.  This strategic fund helps to create a long-term pipeline of research and innovation infrastructure investment priorities for the next 10 to 20 years. It supports a range of projects from new infrastructures to major upgrades, delivering a step change in infrastructure capability and capacity. The Infrastructure Fund spans the complete disciplinary spectrum and funds infrastructures located across all the UK’s regions and nations, and those which form part of major international collaborations.


The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is part of UK Research and Innovation – the UK body which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish.

STFC funds and supports research in particle and nuclear physics, astronomy, gravitational research and astrophysics, and space science and also operates a network of five national laboratories as well as supporting UK research at a number of international research facilities including CERN, FERMILAB, the ESO telescopes in Chile and many more.


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