Physics and medicine: a winning alliance

The ICTR-PHE 2012 conference, which closed its doors today after five busy days, sealed the alliance between the physics and medical communities. We have come a long way since 1977, when physicist David Townsend took the first PET images of a mouse. Detector techniques developed by physicists are no longer confined to cancer treatment, and innovative solutions for better healthcare are on the way.

An overwhelming number of proposals for improving virtually all aspects of cancer treatment were presented at ICTR-PHE 2012, from new detectors and next-generation imaging techniques to accelerator-based facilities for making new isotopes as radiotracers and drugs. 

The conference heralds a new approach to healthcare. Though PET, PET-CT, and MRI scanners are useful tools in identifying malignant cells, cancer is complex and often requires ad hoc solutions. Treatment strategies may change depending on the specific metabolism and metastatic status of the patient. The good news is that technology is following and sometimes anticipating these clinical needs.

For example, a combination of PET and MRI techniques now available can provide information about the nature and metabolism of tumors and metastases. Physicists are experimenting with a wide range of radioisotopes as tracers for specific tumors, and as vehicles that carry radiation directly to malignant cells.

Søren M. Bentzen, professor of human oncology at the University of Wisconsin, used his public talk to push the message that physicists need to play a greater role in the fight for better healthcare. A brand-new science he called “clinical biophysics” is being created, he said, where physics, biology, chemistry, and computer science overlap. Bentzen argued that physicists should have a central role in this new science, which uses research methods that do not exist in any of the single contributing sciences. Watch Bentzen's lecture here.

CERN was strongly represented at the conference. The organization is involved in EU-funded medical-physics projects as well as particle-accelerator and detector-development projects involving LEIR, ISOLDE, several groups in the PH Department, the Knowledge Transfer Group, radiation experts in HSE and many other members of the CERN community.

Stay tuned for a more comprehensive account of ICTR-PHE 2012 presentations and discussions, and a video of conference highlights.