The new CERN facility can contribute towards cancer research
January 02, 2018

The new CERN facility can contribute towards cancer research

For the first time, the CERN-MEDICIS facility produces radioisotopes for medical research. MEDICIS (Medical Isotopes collected from ISOLDE) aims to provide a wide range of radioisotopes, some of which can only be produced at CERN thanks to the unique ISOLDE facility. These radioisotopes are primarily destined for hospitals and research centres in Switzerland and across Europe.

Medicis will allow researchers to produce and test unconventional radioisotopes as part of cancer research

In the wake of the latest advances in the use of radioisotopes for diagnosis and treatment, MEDICIS WILL allow researchers to produce and test unconventional radioisotopes as part of cancer research.

A chemical element can exist in several variants of isotopes, depending on how many neutrons its nucleus has. Some isotopes are naturally radioactive (radioisotopes). They can be found almost everywhere, like rocks or even drinking water. Other radioisotopes are not naturally available but can be produced with particle accelerators. MEDICIS uses a proton bean from ISOLDE (Isotope Mass Separator Online facility at CERN) to produce radioisotopes for medical research. The first batch produced was Terbium 155Tb, a promising radioisotope for the diagnosis of prostate cancer.

Innovative ideas and technologies from physics have contributed to great advances in the field of medicine. Radioisotopes are widely used by the medical community for imaging, diagnosis and radiation therapy. However, many of the isotopes used nowadays do not combine the most appropriate physical and chemical properties. In these cases, a different type of radiation could be better suited. MEDICIS can help to look for radioisotopes with the right properties to enhance precision for both imaging and treatment.

At ISOLDE, the high-intensity proton beam from CERN's Proton Synchrotron Booster (PSB) is directed onto specially developed thick targets, yielding a large variety of atomic fragments. Different devices are used to ionise, extract and separate nuclei according to their mass, forming a low-energy beam that is delivered to various experimental stations. MEDICIS works by placing a second target behind ISOLDE's. Once the isotopes have been produced at the MEDICIS target, an automated conveyor belt carries them to the MEDICIS facility where the radioisotopes of interest are extracted through mass separation and implanted in a metallic foil. They are then delivered to research facilities including the Paul Scherrer Institut, the University Hospital of Vaud and the Geneva University Hospital.

Once at the facility, researchers dissolve the isotope and attach it to a molecule such as protein or sugar. This makes the isotope injectable, and the molecule can adhere to the tumour or organ that needs imaging or treatment.

Video of the robotic arm of CERN-MEDICIS