A NEW FRONT IN THE FIGHT AGAINST CANCER
Professor Matt Zepf talks enthusiastically about the upgrade of his laser facility at Queen’s Centre for Plasma Physics. The original was called TARANIS – and with a dash of humour the new version has been named TARANIS-X.
But this is no dinosaur
It is funded by a £1m grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Matt says, ‘This upgrade will take our laser to a standard that is internationally unique.’
Matt and Professor Fred Currell, along with colleagues Dr Helen McCarthy and Professor Jorge Kohanoff, are at the forefront of the Centre for Advanced and Interdisciplinary Radiation Research (CAIRR), a Pioneer Research Programme (PRP) that brings together life scientists, physicists, physical chemists and computational physicists, all focused on optimising treatment of cancer patients using radiation.
Matt’s field is ultrafast and ultrahigh power radiation sources – such as the ultrashort pulses of extreme ultraviolet light which will be delivered by TARANIS-X – while Fred’s research is into robotic radiation sources, cancer modeling and radiation nanomedicine.
Matt says, ‘We realised we had an opportunity to bring our expertise together, along with the work of our other colleagues, to build something special and that has become the CAIRR PRP.’ It is a multidisciplinary team but he emphasises, ‘First you have to have people who are excellent in their individual disciplines.’
That is certainly the case with CAIRR. The researchers have the tools and capabilities to deepen understanding of fundamental radiation/matter interactions and apply it through several layers of increasing complexity – from the atom to the patient.
Their work is being funded by £1.4m from Queen’s
Over three years and there are already almost 50 staff involved across two faculties, including postdocs and students.Fred says, ‘I think of CAIRR as an impact accelerator – that something done at a very basic level can be accelerated into the domain of the patient. Matt’s planning an experiment which will teach us about the basic behaviour of radiation. There are also other experiments by colleagues which will tell us more about radiation and how it interacts with water, then how it interacts with living systems, right from the most basic up to what happens in a person. This understanding of radiation can inform a lot more about how we optimise its use. It leads to a quicker pipeline. CAIRR is an attractor. What we are doing is exciting and people want to come and be part of it. ‘One of the special things that we’re going to end up with is the fact that having a hub that works like this is a tremendous invisible asset and I also think that one of the big things for me over the next few years will be to internationalise CAIRR.'
He is keen to emphasise the way they all work as a team of equals. ‘Within CAIRR there’s no one expert, no one superman or superwoman leader. It’s important that if we look back in ve years time we can see that we have continued to nurture and grow this kind of collective. We need to keep our eyes on that.’
Matt says, ‘There is really fundamental research that’s valid in its own right. We already have data which shows that if you take something simple, like a lump of glass, and make small changes to its nanostructure, you get a completely different outcome in the way radiation interacts. These are things that couldn’t be seen before but now we can watch a movie of the processes being triggered by radiation evolving.’
Read more from our experts in CAIRR