In a new Physics World Discovery ebook, From Particle Physics to Medical Applications, Manjit Dosanjh explains how advanced particle accelerators, cutting-edge detectors and sophisticated computing techniques developed for particle physics have led to improved methods for medical imaging and cancer treatment.

"The main motivation for writing this ebook was to raise awareness of the way physics has contributed, in terms of detectors and accelerators, and the power that collaboration brings for confronting and meeting really big challenges with long-term vision," explains Dosanjh, senior advisor for medical applications at CERN. Targeted readers include teachers, and senior high-school and university students, she notes.

The free-to-read ebook begins with an introduction to technologies employed for particle physics experiments, including a look at the accelerator complex at CERN and the experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider (LHC) that led to the discovery, in July 2012, of the Higgs boson. Dosanjh then examines how particle detectors developed by CERN and its collaborators – such as the multiwire proportional chamber and PET imaging systems – have played a major role in the evolution of medical imaging.

The text goes on to describe the emergence of hadron therapy as a treatment for cancer and the inception of the Proton Ion Medical Machine Study (PIMMS) collaboration, tasked to design a light-ion hadron therapy centre optimized for medical applications. The project (carried out under the technical leadership of CERN) led to two treatment facilities being built based largely on the PIMMS design – CNAO in Italy and the MedAustron Ion Beam Therapy Centre in Austria. Both centres are now treating patients.

Dosanjh next discusses ENLIGHT, the European Network for Light Ion Therapy. ENLIGHT was established to bring together project teams in Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Sweden, who were all planning to build ion-therapy treatment centres. The network enabled the teams to collaborate, as well as promote international discussions to evaluate the effectiveness of hadron therapy for cancer treatment.

"Personally, I feel that the most powerful tool to come out of CERN's particle physics research is collaboration," Dosanjh tells medicalphysicsweb. "The fact that the physicists can think about an idea or experiment that may not be implemented for over 20 years and still work to identify the technologies that would be necessary, build a consensus and start working towards it at an international level."

The ebook also covers the use of medical imaging for radiotherapy treatment planning, including advances in CT imaging and the introduction of new and improved reconstruction algorithms. Dosanjh concludes with a look at the challenges for future research, including the emergence of diseases related to an ageing population, the need for patient-specific cancer treatments and public pressure to control costs while delivering better outcomes for patients.

Accessibility to treatments is another major challenge, with around two thirds of cancer patients globally having no access to radiation therapy, and particle therapy likely to eventually reach just 5–10% of patients.

"There is lot of focus on reducing the cost, size and complexity of particle therapy machines, using superconducting technology and new RFQ [radio-frequency quadruple] designs," says Dosanjh. "And although low-energy linacs are not CERN's main area of expertise, personally I think that the idea of making linacs for conventional radiation therapy cheaper, modular and lower maintenance has the potential to make the largest impact."

Dosanjh points out that, with this aim, CERN hosted a workshop last year on the Design Characteristics of a Novel Linear Accelerator for Challenging Environments, in which 70 radiotherapy experts met to define a strategy for increasing access to radiotherapy worldwide.

• The Physics World Discovery ebooks are available online now, and can be read in PDF, ePUB or Kindle format. Eight short-form texts have been published so far, with more in the pipeline.

Related stories

• Compact linac designed for proton therapy
• Ebook takes a close look at proton therapy
• Developing medical linacs for challenging regions
• CERN: catalysing collaboration for medical advances