The project aims to reach an important milestone in the development of innovative healthcare technologies: all-optical delivery of dense, high-repetition ion beams at energies above the threshold for deep-seated tumour treatment (~200 MeV/nucleon). Driven from an immediate impact in accelerator science, the flexibility and compactness of the planned solutions, jointly with other potential advantages of laser-based systems, could revolutionise cancer treatment methods.
Radiotherapy is a broadly used approach to cancer management or treatment, which employs ionizing radiation to damage the DNA within cancer cells, destroying their ability to reproduce. The main goal of radiotherapy is the localized delivery of lethal doses of radiation to sterilize the tumour volume whilst minimizing damaging effects to the surrounding healthy tissues.
Currently, most radiation treatments use X-ray photons to destroy cancer cells, but ion beams are in principle much more effective due to the different way in which they deposite energy in the body. Where photon beams deliver their dose immediately upon impact, and then keep going (so affecting tissues from the surface down) ions can be deployed like precision depth-charges, delivering the bulk of their dose at a depth that can be controlled by fine-tuning the beam energy.
All present and developing centres use either a cyclotron or a synchrotron to deliver the ions to the patient. Typically, ion beams are delivered into 3 to 5 procedure rooms equipped with treatment units, and large magnetic steering systems (Gantries), which are employed for multi-directional irradiation of the patient. The total cost of such a facility exceeds £100 M for protons only , 50-70% of which is related to beam transport, shielding and delivery. The high cost of these installations has been a main factor in limiting wider availability of this treatment (two proton therapy centres are only now being developed in the UK), when compared for example with x-ray radiotherapy, which is available virtually in any large hospital.
Within the last decade, a radically different method of accelerating ions by using high power lasers has been developed. The A-SAIL research programme aims to unlock the potential of this laser-based acceleration approach, advancing it to the point at which it will become a competitive alternative to conventional radiofrequency (RF) accelerators for medical therapy. We envisage that this will be a first, crucial step toward the future development of proton therapy facilities in which the particle driver is a laser source.
Find out more about the researchers leading the project here.