Fred Currell came to the Centre for Plasma Physics at Queen's via Manchester and The University of Electro-Communications in Tokyo where he was the first non-Japanese member of staff to be appointed.
Fred's professional journey has taken him not just from Tokyo to Belfast but into new and exciting areas of physics. An interest in radiation generation and what happens to electrons which are tightly bound to atoms has led to a research project with enormous medical relevance, new ways to treat cancer.
At the heart of the research, which has received EPSRC funding, is the discovery that the use of minute particles of gold might be the key to quicker, more effective and more cost-effective treatment.
As Fred outlines, "Any heavy element absorbs x-rays much better than something which is lighter. Our bodies are mostly made of light things and that's why with x-rays we can see through them. But when people don't want x-rays to go through they use something like lead shielding. Lead's a very heavy element but it's not good for our bodies. Gold is much safer. It's another heavy element but it's not bad for us.
"With cancer, there's a lot of discussion about fancy chemotherapy treatment. The reality is, if you go into the hospitals you find that most cancer is treated by surgery and radiotherapy, using radiation to try to kill the part that has the tumour. But you don't want to damage the healthy parts of the patient.
"Nanoparticles of gold are taken up by a tumour much more than by the rest of the body. We've discovered that around each of these nanoparticles there's a massive amount of dose. So if we can put a nanoparticle exactly where we want it there's also a massive effect. It kills but it leaves the healthy parts of the patient unaffected."
Not surprisingly, Fred describes the work as exciting. "We work with the local hospital, with the Clinical Cancer Centre, with people in biology, pharmacy, chemistry. It spans all these disciplines. You have to pull together to make progress in a field like treating cancer. "The approach," he explains, "is also similar to heavy ion cancer therapy used in certain facilities available in only a few places in the world.
"The smallest facility of that kind would cost about $20m before you even open the door. But it looks as if gold nanoparticles, used in conjunction with equipment in present-day hospitals, will give the same level of benefit. So the machines in our own cancer centre would suddenly give much better patient outcome and be much more economical."
Fred concedes that there are many steps to be taken between the current research and delivery to a patient. But he says, "I'm a big evangelist for this."
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