CERN Accelerating science

Optimization of medical accelerators through international collaboration

Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, with the disease accounting for an estimated 9.6 million deaths last year according to the World Health Organization. Although significant progress has been made in the use of proton and ion beams for cancer treatment, further R&D into the optimization of the underpinning accelerator technologies and advanced imaging systems is required to maximize the effectiveness of this technique.

This is the idea behind an international collaborative research network into the Optimization of Medical Accelerators (OMA). The project received 4 million € of funding from the EU within the Horizon 2020 programme to help improve ion beam therapy when it started in 2016; the network is now coming to an end and has achieved excellent results across its three closely interlinked work packages: Beam Imaging and Diagnostics, Treatment Optimization, as well as Facility Design and Optimization.

Group photograph during OMA conference in Seville, Spain. (Image: CNA)

The network has held its final official event in the form of an international conference on Medical Accelerators and Particle Therapy in Seville, Spain, 4-6 September 2019. More than 70 delegates joined at the headquarters of one of the project partners, the Centro Nacional de Aceleradores (CNA). A number of keynote talks covered for example next-generation therapy accelerators by IBA founder Yves Jongen, in-patient beam imaging by Katia Parodi/LMU Munich and dose delivery by Tony Lomax/PSI. The conference also offered a perfect environment for the OMA Fellows to present a summary of their research projects and findings.

OMA Fellow Sudharsan Srinivasan, who is based at PSI, showed results from R&D into a non-interceptive beam current and position monitor that uses the TM010 mode to characterize beams with currents down to 0.1 nA. His design combines mechanical simplicity with ease of manufacture due to its cylinder symmetry. Following characterization of the monitor on a test bench at PSI, Sud and co-workers carried out measurements with beam in the PROSCAN facility in summer 2019. They found very good signal linearity with beam position and low noise of the monitor, so that their monitor can now be considered for application in treatment beamlines.

COMET cyclotron, part of the PROSCAN facility (Image: PSI)

Complementary to this development, Roland Schnuerer and OMA Fellow Jacinta Yap who are based at the University of Liverpool/Cockcroft Institute have investigated the use of the Vertex Locator (VELO) detector technology, originally developed for the Large Hadron Collider beauty experiment (LHCb) as a non-interceptive online beam monitor. Due to the semi-circular cut-out in the sensor, a precise measurement of the beam halo without interfering with the beam core is made possible. By correlating the beam halo reading with data from a Faraday Cup, a halo-dose correlation data base for different settings can be established and used for QA purposes. Proof-of-principle measurements using this monitor at the 40 MeV proton line at the University of Birmingham were completed earlier in 2019 and demonstrated VELO’s unique proton counting capability. Supported by detailed beam tracking studies on the example of the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre, the researchers have shown how VELO can be used for least invasive online beam monitoring and QA.

VELO detector (Image: University of Liverpool)

In addition to novel beam monitoring techniques, OMA Fellows also carried out research into 3D/4D-patient imaging. These are used to position the patient before the therapy and also to monitor the patient position during treatment so that moving tumors can be treated and that the beam can be stopped if the patient is in the wrong position. Samuele Cotta who was based at German company ViALUX focuses on studies into errors and potential damage of the scanners from secondary radiation. Using the intra-network links within OMA, he carried out measurements at several facilities including GSI’s carbon ion treatment room. His studies showed only few disconnections when the monitor was subject to a 1,000 h accelerated test  and allowed improving the sensor by implementing a fast automatic hardware reset in the case of a disconnect event. Further long-term tests are planned in a radiotherapy environment to validate scanner radiation hardness under real treatment conditions.

OMA Fellow Liheng Tian who is based at LMU in Germany presented new treatment planning approaches accounting for in-vivo proton range verification. Based on previous work at his host to re-optimize treatment plans using spot-by-spot conformities of prompt gammas and dose, an improved approach was studied and he showed how this can help ensure enhanced robustness of prompt gamma-dose correlation of boosted pencil beams in the presence of interfractional anatomical changes. In his talk, he also discussed potential advantages over other proposed methods, such as spot aggregation.

Left: Dose distribution of a given pencil beam. Right: Prompt gamma emission distribution of this pencil beam. (Images: LMU)

Professor Welsch who initiated and coordinates the project said: “OMA has been a fascinating journey for all of us. It makes me incredibly proud to see the excellent research results of our Fellows here at this conference. The Fellows have followed a unique training programme, which I am sure will provide them with an excellent basis for their future careers.”

The OMA Fellows have received extensive research-based training within a truly unique international partnership. The fundamental core of their training consisted of dedicated cutting-edge research projects for each Fellow, combined with an intra-network secondment scheme. This training concept is based on the previous DITANET, oPAC and LA3NET MSCA networks and is expected to serve as an excellent basis for future initiatives. In addition, OMA has organized a number of international schools and topical workshops, which were open to the wider community. These events were so popular that the network has decided to continue them beyond the lifetime of the project. This way, OMA will continue to help build bridges between the accelerator and medical community, contributing to a further optimization of ion beam therapy.

Claire Murray (Diamond), Daniela Antonio (CERN)
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Academia-industry collaboration drives innovation

Co-innovation workshop focused on strategic R&D programme of future collider and the benefits for industry in terms of project involvement and product commercialisation.

A new particle collider requires pushing numerous technologies beyond their state of the art. This situation provides industry with powerful test-beds for future markets that come with a high publicity factor. Novel technologies and processes can be piloted with controlled effort engagement. Well-controlled environments allow advancing technologies under conditions that extend beyond conventional product requirements. SMEs are ideal partners to bring these technologies to maturity on the quality level, generating new markets and leading to improved products.

Around 100 researchers, academics and industry delegates from the UK and other EU countries joined an academia-industry Co-Innovation workshop in Liverpool, UK on 22 March 2019. The event explored the exciting opportunities that the technology R&D around the FCC study presents for industry involvement and joint R&D programmes and was supported by the EU-funded EuroCirCol project and that MSCA training networks of EASITrain, OMA and AVA.

Image 1. Workshop participants discussing a range of key technologies. (Image: University of Liverpool)

Discussions across a number of working groups were motivated by the Future Circular Collider (FCC) study, but not limited to this study or even particle accelerators at all – the aim was to identify common ground for joint R&D across disciplinary boundaries. 

Working groups were formed to discuss specific opportunities for co-innovation and funding and included for example superconducting magnet technologies which are also two key topics for EASITrain, cryogenics, civil engineering, detector development, radiofrequency technology, energy efficiency, novel materials and material processing techniques.

Image 2. An industry exhibition took place before the workshop to showcase latest technologies. (Image: University of Liverpool)

Short talks about FCC-related areas for innovation, examples of successful technology transfer projects at CERN, as well as current funding opportunities stimulated interesting discussions amongst the participants. All of these presentations are now available via the workshop homepage.

The workshop served as an ideal platform for networking across sector boundaries and opened a number of interesting discussions. Several areas were identified that provide an excellent basis for co-innovation, including resource-efficient tunnelling, transferring optimised purpose-built machine learning soft- and hardware from particle physics to industry, and detector R&D in terms of high speed, power  and material constraints, cooling, and data maximization. Notes from all working groups are currently being finalized and will be used to follow up on agreed R&D lines with the aim to setup joint funding bids between participants.

It is anticipated that the final applications of the new technologies that are being developed for a next generation collider will stretch far beyond the applications initially targeted. The World Wide Web, originally invited to support particle physics experiments, has just celebrated its 30th anniversary and is an outstanding example of how these technologies can impact on everyday lives.

There are many other successful examples of where innovations made for fundamental research are benefiting society - most of the time in completely unforeseen ways. The FCC study illustrates this in the brand-new film “Busy bees and might magnets – From the Higgs to Honey: What's all the Buzz about Particle Accelerators?” which was produced between CERN and the University of Liverpool.



The film was launched at the event in Liverpool is now available on YouTube.

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Physics of Star Wars: Science or Fiction?

Light sabres, hyper speed and droids – how do they all connect with the latest accelerator research? With the imminent launch of “The Last Jedi”, Professor Carsten Welsch, Head of Physics at the University of Liverpool and Head of Communication for the Cockcroft Institute, has explored the “Physics of Star Wars” in an event on 27th November designed to introduce cutting-edge accelerator science to hundreds of secondary school children, undergraduate and PhD students, as well as university staff.

The day started with a lecture which first presented iconic scenes from the movies to then explain what is possible with current technology and what remains fiction. For example, a lightsabre, as shown in the film, wouldn’t be possible according to the laws of physics, but there are many exciting applications using lasers. There is a link to advances in lasers and laser acceleration being studied by an international collaboration within the EuPRAXIA project. This programme is developing the world’s first plasma accelerator with industry beam quality. It uses a high intensity laser pulse to drive an electron beam and accelerate this to high energies. Applications in science or industry that are close to a light sabre include for example 3D printing of metals and laser cutting.

Professor Welsch said: “In the very first movie from 1977, the rebels have used proton torpedoes that make the Death Star explode as their lasers wouldn’t penetrate the shields. I linked that to our use of ‘proton torpedoes’ in cancer therapy. Within the pan-European OMA project we are using proton beams to target something that is hidden very deep inside the body and very difficult to target and destroy.”

 OMA Fellow Jacinta Yab explaining the use of ‘proton torpedoes’ in cancer therapy (Image credit: QUASAR Group)

 The light and dark side of the Force in Star Wars was an ideal opportunity to talk about matter and antimatter interactions which are currently being explored at CERN’s AD and ELENA storage rings, as well as within the brand-new Marie Sklodowska-Curie research network AVA. Finally, participants learned about how high energy colliders, such as the LHC, its high luminosity upgrade or a potential Future Circular Collider (FCC) as it is being studied within the EuroCirCol project, can provide fantastic opportunities to study the force(s).

High school students participating in hands-on activities during ‘Physics of Star Wars’ event. (Image credit: QUASAR Group)

After the lecture, all participants were given the opportunity to understand the science behind Star Wars through numerous hands-on activities in the university’s award-winning Central Teaching Laboratory. This included laser graffiti, augmented reality experiments with Star Wars droids and virtual accelerators using AcceleratAR, and even two full-scale planetariums which fully immersed participants into the world of Star Wars, deflecting charged particle beams using Helmholtz coils.

Professor Welsch and members of his QUASAR Group had the kind permission of Lucasfilm to use film excerpts; these were complemented by Lego Star Wars models, a real cantina as found in the movies, storm troopers and even Darth Vader himself! Many photographs from the exciting day can be found on Twitter at

Lucasfilm had no involvement in the preparation or delivery of the event which was organised only by staff and students from the University of Liverpool.


Header image: Prof Carsten Welsch presenting the ‘Physics of Star Wars’ (Image credit: QUASAR Group)

Lucio Rossi (CERN)
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