Proton beam therapy offers exciting career opportunities

The rapidly developing field of accelerator science urgently needs more researchers to design and optimise treatment facilities

As the UK gears up to open its new proton beam therapy centres in 2018 there is evidence emerging that further benefits can be achieved with other particles such as heavy ions. 

Heavier than protons, they can target the tumour with greater precision, sparing healthy tissues. The rapidly developing field of accelerator science urgently needs more researchers to design and optimise the required treatment facilities and beam delivery systems. 

The Cockcroft Institute together with a consortium of European institutions has put out a call for Fellows to join the new training network ‘Optimisation of Medical Accelerators’ (OMA) which starts in 2016. 

Professor Carsten P. Welsch from the University of Liverpool’s Department of Physics, based at the Cockcroft Institute, is coordinating the OMA initiative. He says: “The field of particle-beam therapy is still very much in evolution. Although we know that the potential of current proton beam therapy is not fully exploited the results have already been impressive, with patients experiencing extended periods of remission. 

“A growing body of clinical evidence shows that there is great potential for proton and ion treatment, particularly for treatment of cancers in children and where tumours are close to vital organs. The goal now is to maximise the therapeutic efficiency while reducing as much as possible the damage to surrounding tissues. This will come through improvements in tumour imaging, beam quality and shaping and a better understanding of the dose and its impact on both the body and the tumour. It requires advanced online monitoring techniques such as the ones we have been developing at the Cockcroft Institute. 

A growing body of clinical evidence shows that there is great potential for proton and ion treatment, particularly for treatment of cancers in children and where tumours are close to vital organs

“All of these issues are being addressed in the OMA initiative which is a unique collaboration of universities, research institutes, clinical facilities and industry partners.” 

Radiation therapy includes X-ray, proton and more recently carbon ion beams. X-ray dose deposition follows on exponential decay which means that treating a deep-seated tumour involves significant entrance and exit doses to healthy tissue around the tumour. 

The major benefit of protons over X-rays is the control of the dose. The beam travels through the healthy tissue before depositing its dose; this is due to a phenomenon called the Bragg peak which means there is essentially no exit dose. The beam can also be extremely well controlled to follow the outline of the tumour. This precision makes the technology suited to delicate situations; indeed the UK’s only proton beam therapy centre at Clatterbridge treats eye cancers. 

More information is also emerging about the benefits of carbon ions and Heidelberg, in Germany, is one of the world’s few clinical centres with multiple-ion capacity. 

Professor Welsch says there is now a worldwide demand for scientists and engineers with skills in accelerator science. “Ion beam therapy is an exciting area of science for young people and it needs a multidisciplinary approach. For example real-time non-invasive imaging techniques are needed to direct the beam precisely and this needs to take into account even the patient’s breathing cycle.”

ABOVE: Professor Carsten P. Welsch from the University of Liverpool’s Department of Physics

The big challenge is to reduce the size and the cost of these accelerators while improving their performance. This will require expanding horizons beyond the current technologies. New types of accelerating structures and beam delivery systems, advanced simulation tools and beyond state-of the-art beam diagnostics for monitoring all important beam parameters are among the approaches being explored in the OMA initiative, putting the Fellows at the very forefront of technology. 

Professor Welsch has already coordinated several pan-European training networks – DITANET, for beam diagnostics, oPAC, for the Optimization of Particle Accelerators, and LA3NET, for Laser Applications at Accelerators – all aimed at creating researchers with vital skills in accelerator science. Like OMA these consisted of an international consortium of universities, research centres and private companies to provide a cross-sector environment for state-of-the-art research and comprehensive training programme. 

As before, research Fellows within OMA will have the opportunity to work at the forefront of science whilst gaining experience on complementary skills such as project management and communication. Workshops and conferences help to develop their links and collaborations, building a sense of community.

The network is currently looking for candidates for its 15 vacant Fellowship positions at institutions across Europe.

The deadline for applications is 28th February 2016 and the programme will begin in October 2016. For more information please see website: www.oma-project.eu

W: www.cockcroft.ac.uk