First steps in 'anti-matter' cancer therapy

In collaboration with the Press Association

An international team of particle physicists and cancer specialists has taken the first steps toward developing a new form of cancer radiotherapy.

Working at the European Particle Physics Laboratory (CERN) near Geneva, the researchers said they have demonstrated that anti-protons, a form of anti-matter, can destroy cancer cells much more precisely and effectively than currently-used forms of radiotherapy.

Anti-protons are so-called antiparticles - mirror images of the particles that make up our universe. They are extremely rare, but can be produced in CERN's particle accelerators.

They are of particular interest as a form of radiotherapy as they can be adjusted to target tumours in areas as small as a cubic millimetre without damaging surrounding tissue.

Once they have been targeted, the anti-proton finds a normal proton within a tumour, and the two are converted to energy and other particles which destroy cancer cells.

Because they are more precise, patients would need far fewer treatments and suffer far fewer side-effects. Doctors would also be able to precisely plot the progress of therapy.

Current radiotherapy techniques, while greatly improved in recent years, remain dependent on saturating the body and affecting healthy tissue, causing many side-effects.

The researchers cautioned that they are least ten years away from a practical treatment due to the cost and complexity of the technology involved.

They added that the proof of concept is a major milestone in itself however, and opens the way for a huge amount of cross-disciplinary research.

The study has been published in the journal Radiotherapy and Oncology.