Particle accelerator technology has long been used in medical procedures to kill dangerous tumors. Cancers are subjected to minute-long bombardments of particles that hopefully destroy many of the tumor cells.
However, researchers at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University have been given funding to further develop two projects that could make accelerators destroy cancer cells with beams that last less than a second. The much shorter duration will make these accelerator-based approaches to cancer therapy more effective and safer.
"Delivering the radiation dose of an entire therapy session with a single flash lasting less than a second would be the ultimate way of managing the constant motion of organs and tissues, and a major advance compared with methods we're using today," Professor Billy Loo, from Stanford School of Medicine, said in a statement.
"We've seen in mice that healthy cells suffer less damage when we apply the radiation dose very quickly, and yet the tumor-killing effect is equal to or even a little bit better than that of a conventional longer exposure. If the result holds for humans, it would be a whole new paradigm for the field of radiation therapy."
The two projects use different methods. One will focus on X-rays, while the other will use protons. The former, called PHASER, creates X-rays by accelerating electrons in a short space. Over the last few years, the researchers have studied the essential technologies, looked into improvements, and built prototypes. Both current components are performing as expected and the team now plan to make these devices more compact.
"Next, we'll build the accelerator structure and test the risks of the technology, which, in three to five years, could lead to a first actual device that can eventually be used in clinical trials," added Professor Sami Tantawi, the chief scientist for the RF Accelerator Research Division in SLAC's Technology Innovation Directorate, who works with Loo on both projects.
The proton accelerator is not as far along as PHASER, but it has an advantage. Protons are, in principle, less harmful to healthy tissue as they deliver energy in a smaller volume inside the body. The team will take tech from the particle accelerator and work out how to make it smaller.
"We can now move forward with designing, fabricating and testing an accelerator structure similar to the one in the PHASER project that will be capable of steering the proton beam, tuning its energy and delivering high radiation doses practically instantaneously," said Emilio Nanni, a staff scientist at SLAC, who leads the project with Tantawi and Loo.
The projects will require further funding, but they are an exciting start.