Combatting cancer in a challenging environment

26 October 2017

If you live in a low or middle income country, your chances of surviving cancer are significantly lower than if you live in a wealthier economy. And that’s largely down to the availability of radiation therapy.

One challenge is the design of medical particle accelerators required to deliver the therapy – which need to be affordable, easy to operate and maintain, and robust enough to be used in environments where power supplies are limited or intermittent, communications are poor or the harshness of the climate presents operational challenges.

This week a group of international experts in the fields of accelerator design, medical physics and oncology are getting together at CERN to try and solve the technical problem of designing a robust linear accelerator that can be used in these challenging environments.

The scale of the problem

Between 2015 and 2035, the number of cancer diagnoses worldwide is expected to increase by 10 million with around 65% of those cases in poorer economies.

It’s estimated that 12,600 new radiotherapy treatment machines will be needed to treat those patients.

A future ICEC workshop will look at the education and training requirements for the estimated 130,000 local staff (oncologists, medical physicists and technicians) who will be needed to operate the treatment machines and deliver patient care.

Jointly organised by CERN, the International Cancer Expert Corps (ICEC) and STFC, the invitation-only workshop is funded through the UK’s Global Challenges Research Fund, enabling key participants from Botswana, Ghana, Jordan, Nigeria and Tanzania to share their grass-roots perspectives.

Understanding the in-country challenges will improve the effectiveness of the technology under design. Zubi Zubizaretta of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will present the results of the 2017 IAEA Radiation Therapy survey.

Suzie Sheehy, of Oxford University and STFC, is taking part in the workshop, “Accelerators for medicine have to be incredibly precise, while being easy to use and well integrated into the healthcare system. Getting the technology right will be hard enough, but ensuring that we work closely with the right communities to ensure that together we can realise radiotherapy as a sustainable healthcare solution - that is the most important thing.”

“I grew up in Australia where the distances to hospitals can be vast, the climate can be harsh and local access to medical experts can quite literally be the difference between life and death. In this project, the challenges in different environments will be extremely varied, but it seems obvious to me that those of us on the cutting-edge of research in particle accelerators should rise to the challenge of re-designing systems to make them more available to those who need them. I see this as a challenge and an opportunity to take my research into spaces where it is most needed.”

The overall aim of this ambitious project is to make excellent treatment systems available in low and middle income countries in the next 10 years.

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