How CERN has accelerated medicine

Friday, November 15, 2019


Physics pioneered at the European Organization for Nuclear Research - otherwise known as CERN - contributes to modern medical technologies. In the Global Innovation Index 2019, CERN’s Giovanni Anelli, Manuela Cirilli and Anais Rassat explain how particle physics technologies have contributed to practical medical innovation around the world.


This article is part of a series about the power of innovation to solve social and economic challenges. Stories and statistics are drawn from the Global Innovation Index 2019.


Since the discovery of X-rays at the end of the 19th Century, the science of physics has revolutionised the world of medicine.


Physics underpins many advanced techniques and technologies that are routinely used in hospitals for diagnosing and treating disease, including radiotherapy for cancer treatment, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and positron emission tomography (PET) imaging.


The European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, contributes to physics-based medical innovation. This institution, headquartered in the suburbs of Geneva, Switzerland, is a case study in collaborative innovation between governments around the world. It is most famous for the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and as the place where the existence of the Higgs Boson, popularised as the “God Particle”, was confirmed.


The multiwire proportional chamber


CERN is the world’s largest particle physics lab, and while its core mission is research into particle physics, part of its remit is to ensure that this expertise delivers tangible benefits to society. Since its creation in 1954, CERN has been active in transferring its technology and expertise outside of particle physics - most famously with the invention of the World Wide Web by scientist Tim Berners-Lee in 1989.


In terms of potential impacts on society, one of the most relevant knowledge transfer opportunities involving CERN technologies is to the world of healthcare.


In 1968, CERN physicist Georges Charpak conceived a particle detector that ushered in a new era for particle physics, and won him the Nobel Prize for Physics. He strove to ensure that his invention, the multiwire proportional chamber, could be applied to medicine.


Charpak’s detector has found important applications in biology, radiology, and nuclear medicine. He was a firm believer in entrepreneurship as a tool to transfer technologies from basic research to society, and the company he founded in 1989 is still active in the field of medical imaging, with a system based on his original detector.


In 1975, CERN physicists David Townsend and Alan Jeavons had the idea of using a version of Charpak’s detector for PET imaging, which is now routinely used to help diagnose disease. And while PET was not invented at CERN, the work carried out by Jeavons and Townsend played a major part in its early development.



Fighting cancer


In the 1990s, CERN contributed to a collaborative design study for a next-generation cancer treatment centre that would use both protons and carbon ions. The technique is called hadron therapy, an advanced form of cancer radiation therapy that? uses protons to target cancer cells, leaving non-cancerous tissues unharmed. This study provided the technical background for building two of the four European centers providing cancer therapy with protons and carbon ions.Recently, a compact and low-cost accelerator manufactured by CERN was licensed to ADAM, a company building a linear accelerator for hadron therapy.


Another technology, initially developed to address the needs of particle tracking at the Large Hadron Collider, is Medipix, a family of read-out chips for particle imaging and detection. MARS Bioimaging Ltd is commercialising the 3D scanner, which captures medical images that no other tool can achieve.


MARS’ solution couples the spectroscopic information generated by the Medipix3-enabled detector with powerful algorithms, to generate colour 3D images. The colours represent different energy levels of the X-ray photons as recorded by the detector, identifying different components of body parts such as fat, water, calcium, and disease markers.


CERN attracts medtech companies and medical researchers. Since 2018, the CERN-MEDICIS facility has been producing innovative isotopes for medical and biomedical research by hospitals and other institutes.


Continuing its history of collaboration, in 2018, CERN organized a Hackathon to explore new ways of developing viable applications of CERN technologies in the medical field. The CERN MedTech:Hack took place over three days, during which international teams of students competed to solve topical problems pitched by healthcare organizations and industry partners in the medical field.




As these examples show, particle physics has been a trailblazer in terms of driving major technical advances. However, bringing disruptive technologies like this to the medical sector can be a complex and challenging journey.


Scientists at CERN, and working in other laboratories and research centres around the world, can bridge this gap.


“CERN and other basic research laboratories should hone their tools and strategies to maximize the impact of their technologies and expertise on societally relevant topics such as healthcare.,” the report says.


“Projects like the LHC can only happen through large-scale international cooperation based on mutual trust,” they add the GIobal Innovation Index 2019 goes on to say, before stressing the need to get the next generation of scientists “into the habit of thinking about their research in terms of impact.”


The Global Innovation Index 2019 is the result of a collaboration between Cornell University, INSEAD, and the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) as co-publishers, and their Knowledge Partners, Confederation of Indian Industry, Dassault Systèmes, SEBRAE, Brazilian Micro and Small Industry Support Services, and Brazilian Confederation of Industry.


Published under Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-ND 4.0) licence. That means you can copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format for any purpose, even commercially, but you cannot change it in any way.

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