New laser technology for radiotherapy, a project conducted by Prof Ken Long (Imperial), and Prof Yolanda Prezado (CNRS)

This joint PhD project between CNRS and Imperial is currently conducted by:

Prof. Kenneth Long – Imperial PI

Josie McGarrigle – Imperial PhD student

Dr. Yolanda Prezado – PI Institut Curie (CNRS)

Alfredo Fernandez Rodriguez – PhD student at the Institut Curie (CNRS)

Former member of the project:

Dr. Masilela Thongchai – Graduate PhD student at Imperial

Radiotherapy has been used to treat cancer for over 100 years and yet there is something counterintuitive about firing a high energy beam of radiation, a known cause of cancer, to treat the very thing it causes. Much cancer research to date has therefore focused on how to harness the ability of ionising radiation to damage cancerous cells, whilst minimising its impact on healthy tissue. Proton beam therapy is a newer approach to this problem. It involves accelerating a beam of protons and precisely targeting the cancer, in such a way that almost all of its energy is deposited in a small volume within a tumour causing less damage to surrounding healthy tissue. Currently only two centres in the UK offer this treatment because the facilities are expensive and require so much space. But Imperial and CNRS researchers spanning the physical and biomedical disciplines are coming together via the LAHRA project to bring the latest advances in particle physics into the realms of biomedical science.

Listen to our 10 mn podcast about the project here.

Discover more about the project

INTRO

What are the possibilities when scientists collaborate across borders?

PROF SANDRINE HEUTZ

New types of materials, sustainable materials, functional materials; new methodologies to detect and cure cancer; health, sustainability and connectivity; doing excellent research; this IRC is really about exploring possibilities; I mean it’s clear that we are better together.

These projects highlight some of the incredible collaborative science made possible by the International Research Centre, a joint venture between Imperial College London and the Centre National de Recherche Scientifique or CNRS in France.

NARRATOR

Radiotherapy has been used to treat cancer for over 100 years and yet there is something counterintuitive about firing a high-energy beam of radiation, a known cause of cancer, to treat the very thing it causes. Much cancer research to date has therefore focused on how to harness the ability of ionising radiation to damage cancerous cells, whilst minimising its impact on healthy tissue. Proton beam therapy is a newer approach to this problem. It involves accelerating a beam of protons and precisely targeting the cancer, in such a way that almost all of its energy is deposited in a small volume within a tumour causing less damage to surrounding healthy tissue. Currently, only two centres in the UK offer this treatment because the facilities are expensive and require so much space. But Imperial and CNRS researchers spanning the physical and biomedical disciplines are coming together via the LAHRA project to bring the latest advances in particle physics into the realms of biomedical science.

PROF. LONG

I'm Ken Long. I'm a physicist at Imperial. I'm one of the leaders of what we call the LhARA project, proposed to build, to study the impact of proton and ion beams on cells and tissues in order to advance radiotherapy. If you were having a treatment with protons or ions in the UK then you would go to one of two places with the NHS, that's at UCL or in Manchester at the Christie Hospital. If the treatment was on the second floor, the thing which delivers the beam would go into the fourth floor: It's a two floor up, two floor down kind of activity to treat one person in the middle, because the beam has to go right the way around the person.  So it's not about the accelerator, it's about how you get the beam to the patient.

So LhARA stands for the Laser Hybrid Accelerator for Radiobiological Applications.

NARRATOR

Essentially, it’s a method of creating fast-moving beams of charged particles, or ion species, using high-powered laser interactions with a lens system to capture them at the end. Think of it all a bit like a pinball machine that moves in one direction only, with the lasers acting like the buttons that speed the ball up and the gap in which the balls can fall down being the capture system.

ALFREDO

Using lasers, you can have a much smaller, probably way cheaper particle accelerator.   My name is Alfredo Fernandez and I'm based in the Institut Curie in Paris. And my topic of research is new approaches in radiotherapy and radiobiology.  My supervisor in Institut Curie is Dr. Yolanda Prezado. My co-supervisor at Imperial College is Professor Kenneth Long. Basically, the idea of radiotherapy is to use ionising radiation produced by some radioactive materials or by a particle accelerator to attack cancer cells with a curative intention.

My project, there are two parts, one more focuses on new ways of producing radiation with new types of particle accelerators, mainly based on lasers. There are some problems with this because laser-produced beams are way more difficult to control than conventional beams. But, well, this is what we are working on.

PROF. LONG

So at Imperial, in the Physics department, people are strong on laser-plasma interactions. In the High Energy Physics group, we consider ourselves strong at Accelerator Science and instrumentation. Institut Curie brings the radiation biologists. So our partner there is Yolanda Prezado. She's internationally recognized and runs a group about new approaches to radiotherapy. Yolanda is interested in what happens when you focus radiation down into a very small space, and there are gaps between the places which are irradiated. So in the nuclear and particle physics area, in the instrumentation, there are clear overlaps and complementarity in our expertise.

NARRATOR

As well as pioneering new ways of creating proton beams, through the joint PhD programme, researchers are bringing other recent advances in cancer treatment within the scope of the LhHRA Project.

THONGCHAI

My name is Thongchai Masilela. I'm originally from South Africa. And this PhD was in the framework of the collaboration between Imperial College London and the CNRS. My PhD was based at Institut Curie and I was supervised by Yolanda Prezado. And the goal of this PhD was to use these computer simulations to look at two specific types of radiotherapy. One was called very high-energy electron radiotherapy, whereas in clinics, we typically use electrons that are much lower energy. And then the second part of the PhD was to look at something called mini beam radiation therapy, whereby instead of irradiating a homogenous field of radiation, we split the radiation up into smaller volumes in order to spare the normal tissue.

JOSIE

My name is Josie McGarrigle and I’m a third year PhD student in the Particle Physics department. So we’re looking at the new techniques of radiotherapy that might limit the impact of the radiation on the body and the recurrence of tumours in the future. So, looking at using magnetic focusing to focus beams, that's for something called spatially fractionated radiotherapy, and that alongside ultra-high dose rate radiotherapy that they call FLASH, are two new techniques that they think will be able to treat tumours while also saving some of that healthy tissue surrounding the tumour cells.

NARRATOR

Spatially fractionated radiotherapy acts almost like a sieve to focus beams and limit the amount of radiation the healthy body has to deal with. Meanwhile, the FLASH effect is far more elusive. Scientists have found that subjecting a tumour to incredibly high-intensity radiation for very short bursts, much less than a second, kills more cancerous cells while sparing healthy tissue. The mechanism for this effect, however, remains to be discovered in its entirety. So the radiobiological arm of this collaboration hopes to shed light on some of these and other obscure effects of radiation on both healthy and cancerous tissue

JOSIE

By looking and investigating these two types of radiotherapy, we're also looking at how to implement that into the LhARA beam, so that we are able to have ultra-high dose rates, spatially fractionated radiotherapy, with the types of energies and doses that we're able to provide with the laser accelerator.

NARRATOR

Beyond the project, collaborations can have a great impact on researchers and their PhD students now and in the future.

ALFREDO

The main benefit I think it's working with the team closely. My work consists mainly of simulations and I can get it done from Paris, but being in Imperial allows me to really work with my supervisors. For me, it's very important to have this collaboration and this joint effort to face some of the problems that can be part of the day-to-day work. In the end, I think it's very enriching to have an insight into these different organisation schemes. And although the work philosophy is very similar, these little differences in the day-to-day work make my thesis more exciting.

JOSIE

I haven't done biology since GCSE, so it's nice to have a point of contact who can guide me on that side of things. Jolanda's extremely knowledgeable, she's one of the people that are really pioneering especially the FLASH and spatially fractionated radiotherapy. It's nice to be able to cover both sides of things as a collaboration. Also then access to the Institute Curie. I've been there a few times for some short stays and a couple of longer stays to look at their lab facilities and observe in vitro and in vivo experiments, which has been really interesting. And then that guided me to be able to do my own in vitro experiments.

Both supervisors are super passionate about the subject. Having that, where they're really excited about the project, really drives your enthusiasm. I hope that the collaborations keep continuing and the more collaboration that you have, the further we progress with science. 

NARRATOR

Together, researchers from the CNRS and Imperial College are making beams faster and more energetic whilst reducing the distances they have to travel before entering patients' bodies. This will drive down the cost of facilities allowing more patients access to state-of-the-art treatments. Not only that, but it will feed back into the physical sciences by helping to discover more properties of particle beams. Back to Professor Kenneth Long.

PROF. LONG

The grand ambition is to transform clinical practice. It's a multidisciplinary project because it's natural sciences trying to contribute to biological sciences, but it's also multidisciplinary in the sense that the technologies that we develop along the way can spin into pure science. So like, the source and capture improve the state of the art there, and the accelerator system similarly, and could be used in various applications, both from neutrino science, and in principle also to get to what physicists like to call the energy frontier. So that thing which would come after the LHC in Cern. The students are really doing things for the first time at Imperial. So I hope that going forward, there will be many more PhDs and they're in a broader set of areas. 

We have to be more connected internationally to deliver LhARA to serve the ITRF. Both the expertise we need access to and the resources are such that we are unable to do it on our own.

OUTRO

Thank you for listening. If you are interested in knowing more about this project or in the general partnership between the CNRS and Imperial, you can reach out to the International Research Office at Imperial College, and don't forget to look out for our next audio focusing on another brilliant piece of research.