Lasers light up India-UK collaboration

A medical revolution could be waiting at the tip of a laser, as scientists in India and the United Kingdom work together on new technologies that may help diagnose and fight cancer faster.

Teams from UK universities and Indian institutes are exploring laser-based plasma-accelerators for cancer therapies, and training a new generation of Indian researchers, in a joint collaboration supported by the  Newton Fund.

First Newton-Bhabha workshop jointly organised by UK’s Central Laser Facility and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

More than 1 million new cases of cancer are diagnosed in India annually, according to a study in medical journal The Lancet. But an important treatment tool, hadron and neutron therapy, is unavailable for the majority of the country’s 1.2 billion people.

Radiotherapy, a common cancer treatment using high-energy X-rays or gamma rays on large areas of the body, does not discriminate between healthy and cancerous tissue. Although the hadron and neutron therapy alternative is more precise, it requires expensive particle accelerators, and hence is not widely available.

Secret weapon

“Using beams of particles to bombard a tumour minimises the damage to healthy tissue,” says Dr Rajeev Pattathil of the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council, as "particles such as protons and ions can deposit their energy locally on tumours, without affecting the healthy tissues on the way".

These charged particles wreck the DNA of cancer cells or even kill them, preventing them from dividing. But the beams can only be created with “big and extremely expensive” particle accelerators.

Dr Pattathil is based at the Central Laser Facility (CLF) near Oxford, UK and heads up the UK-Indian collaboration. He says that the majority of developing countries would not be able to afford the treatment because of the cost of buying and running a particle accelerator.

“Working with our user community in the universities, the idea is to use lasers, like those at the CLF, to create cheaper and more compact sources of ionising particles and radiation,” he says. "Along with treatment options, laser-based solutions may also provide diagnostics for early detection of cancer."

“The UK, historically, has extensive expertise in laser-plasma research, which is why this was chosen as an area of collaboration,” says Pattathil. “But the field is still nascent.”

Particle accelerators use electric fields to propel charged particles at high speeds — the higher the particle energy, the higher the length needed for acceleration. "The same effect can be created with lasers, in the plasmas they generate, but over a much shorter distance," Pattathil says. A plasma is a superheated gas whose atoms have broken down into protons and electrons.

“A lot of research and development needs to happen before you can roll out a solution — to control the particles and radiation beams — but if you don’t do that initial R&D, it will never happen,” Pattathil says.

Basic research into laser-plasma interactions and laser development is taking place in both India and the UK. “We work with both our user community in the UK universities and our Indian partners to facilitate the exchange of ideas," says Pattahil. "It builds up a knowledge capacity in India to exploit this next-generation technology."

The next generation

Professor G. Ravindra Kumar, based at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India, is one of the collaborators in this programme. “Personally, it has been very fruitful as we can now hope to strengthen existing links, improve research infrastructure in India with the participation of the UK teams, and innovate together with them right here,” he says.

Dr Pattahil says the research will take time to show results. “Our work aims to develop a cheaper solution for this therapy and diagnosis, but four years is too short a time to take a product based on this technology to market. It’s steering towards that, but just as importantly, it's training India's bright young students in next-generation technology, which drives innovation in India.”

The Newton Fund is part of the UK’s official development assistance programme. It supports the UK to use its strengths in scientific research to promote economic development and social welfare in emerging science nations while building long-term collaborations.

India is one of 16 Newton Fund partner countries and the fund requires co-investment with partner countries. The UK will contribute up to £104 million up to 2021, which is match-funded by India.The laser-plasma project will run for four years with approximately £350,000 from the fund.

Science and Technology Facilities Council Switchboard: 01793 442000