Stories|Defeating cancer with flashes of light

Defeating cancer with flashes of light

Life Science and healthcare

A 3D-printed modulator for highly efficient radiotherapy

In an important step in the fight against cancer, a new approach known as FLASH radiotherapy could soon offer patients a much gentler form of treatment. FLASH radiotherapy uses short pulses of intense ionising radiation to treat the tumour tissue effectively, while at the same time causing significantly less damage to the surrounding healthy tissue than conventional radiation treatment, opening up a new therapeutic window for radiation oncologists. GSI, THM and Varian are jointly developing a 3D-printed modulator that helps to precisely adjust the dose and range of the radiation pulse delivered to the tumour.

Conventional radiotherapy, and also proton and ion therapy, typically exposes patients to radiation for a minute or more during each session. This has a corresponding impact on the surrounding healthy tissue too. The idea of FLASH radiotherapy is to use extremely short, high-intensity pulses of radiation instead. The tumour is only irradiated for a few hundred milliseconds or even less, reducing side effects and increasing the therapeutic window. These benefits have already been demonstrated in a large number of preclinical trials.

However, the clinical particle accelerators that produce the radiation pulse need to operate at their maximum level in order to generate the necessary power. This in turn leads to a technical issue: conventional therapy using accelerated particles relies on a technique known as raster scanning. The intensity of the beams is precisely modulated as they are repeatedly guided across the tumour by high-speed magnets. However, this has to be done sequentially in 30 to 60 energy bursts.

FLASH, on the other hand, uses just one energy pulse. In order to adapt the radiation pulse to the size of the tumour, GSI, the University of Applied Sciences Mittelhessen (THM) and the Californian company Varian, a member of Siemens Healthineers, have developed a so-called patient-specific 3D range modulator (3D-RM), which achieves a result similar to raster scanning within the available time of a few milliseconds. This compact module consisting of a large number of pyramid-shaped structures with microscopically defined contours is made using high-quality 3D printers. The 3D-RM is manufactured individually for each patient and precisely adjusted to the shape of the tumour. It is placed upstream in the beamline before the particles enter the patient’s body.

The system has been successfully installed for research purposes at the proton therapy centres in Delft and Aarhus.

Partners involved

  • GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research
  • Technische Hochschule Mittelhessen (THM)
  • Varian, a Siemens Healthineers company based in Palo Alto, California
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Dr. Martina Bauer

Innovation Manager Technology Transfer

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