Detecting particle beam halo for patient benefit

In the world of cancer therapies, new radiotherapy techniques are advancing at clinical facilities around the world. Cutting-edge research at the University of Liverpool is now utilising detector technology originally designed and used at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator at CERN. The results could present major societal benefits in vastly reduced treatment times for people with cancer and more cost-effective patient handling across a far wider population.

Radiotherapy using x-rays and electrons is complemented by beams that use protons or ions, providing a treatment modality with unique features to target tumours. The EU-funded Optimisation of Medical Accelerators (OMA) project is developing upon these advances with improved cancer patient outcomes being the ultimate goal.

Radiotherapy treatment

“OMA is all about clinical benefits for patients and how ion-beam therapies can deliver the best treatment possible for specific cancer types,” says OMA leader Professor Carsten Welsch, Head of the Department of Physics at the University of Liverpool. “Ion-beam based treatments do very little harm to healthy tissue compared to x-ray treatment or electron beam therapies.”

How can we use ion-beam treatments more effectively?

Ion-beam treatments are relatively new, so there are gains to be made in optimal and standardised operation. For instance, significant time is taken calibrating the beam using a dummy before a patient is treated. Could there be a way to reduce this calibration time (10-30%) and monitor the real-time properties of the beam while it’s in use? The LHCb VELO particle detector was originally designed at the University of Liverpool for high-energy physics at CERN, and has a hole in the centre to let the primary beam pass through. Welsch and colleagues thought “why not adapt this design to detect the minute ‘halo’ of particles around a treatment beam as it passes through the hole, directly characterising the beam as it treats the patient?

“We measure the particle outliers around the beam and correlate this information to the energy and the precise dose that is delivered to the patient,” Welsch explains. The result is real-time monitoring of the beam’s characteristics. This delivers more precise doses and saves significant amounts of time, enabling more people to receive this potentially life-saving treatment at reduced cost.

Further information about the project

The ion-beam halo detection project in OMA started in October 2016 and builds up on earlier R&D carried out in the frame of the £4 million DITANET project, also led by the University of Liverpool.

Two NHS centres for proton therapy are currently being built at The Christie in Manchester and London, in addition to several private centres elsewhere in the UK, which are estimated to be available for clinical use from 2022-2023.

This is one of 15 research projects in the four-year €4 million OMA project, funded by the EU within the Horizon 2020 programme.

To find out more about OMA and other relevant projects contact Prof Carsten Welsch