The University of Malta participated in the organisation and chaired half the sessions of a one-week online Heavy-Ion Cancer-Therapy Masterclass School that attracted well over one thousand international students.
The school was one of the deliverables of a work package led by the University of Malta within the EU H2020 Heavy Ion Therapy Research Integration project. The online intensive school consisted of thirty-five hours of contact time between 17 and 21 May 2021. About half of the students were from Europe whilst the rest were from non-European regions spanning North and South America, Asia, Africa and Australia.
The school encompassed several emerging topics related to heavy-ion cancer-therapy and included new developments in technologies used to deliver the ion beam onto the tumour target; starting from the ion source, continuing with the accelerating and beam delivery systems and finally discussing the biological response of cancerous and healthy tissues when bombarded with ions. The school also included a hands-on mode which focused on treatment planning, including exercises on range verification, impact and mitigation of uncertainties and dose optimisation.
Figure: The difference of dose distribution by one beam port between X-ray photons and carbon ion beams. The intensity of radiation deposited in the tissue, illustrated in the sectional image of a patient's skull, is provided by the color scheme. In the case of X-ray photons, more radiation is deposited in healthy tissue before reaching the tumor; but in the case of a carbon ion beam, more radiation is deposited (red color) in the tumor than in healthy tissue.
Contrary to current cancer treatment based on x-rays, particle therapy significantly reduces the radiation dose in healthy tissue around the tumour and focusses the radiation on the cancer cells with much higher precision. This is particularly important in the treatment of tumours close to critical organs, in children and in pregnant women. On top of these key features, heavy-ion therapy offers even more precision and several advantages related to biological processes which make it significantly more effective at killing even the most persistent of cancer cells that are resistant to x-ray therapy. Furthermore, heavy-ion therapy reduces the chances of tumour regrowth and spreading and can be used to enhance the effectiveness of cancer immunotherapy.
Despite the demands posed by a heavy ion therapy school with such an overwhelming student response, the participants’ feedback demonstrated that they greatly appreciated the multidisciplinary online approach which included: provisions to overcome difficulties due to time-zone differences; methods to encourage interaction through questions and exercises; virtual visits of several research infrastructures; multimedia; informal discussions and interaction with top experts; diversity aspects; student presentations and sessions and; online social events including a career fair.
The school’s programme committee was chaired by GSI – Helmholtz Center for Heavy Ion Research and apart from the University of Malta included members from the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ), the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, the South East European International Institute for Sustainable Technologies (SEEIIST) and the University of Sarajevo. The event was further supported by several other contributing institutions including Centro Nazionale di Adroterapia Oncologica (CNAO), MedAustron, Extreme Matter Institute (EMMI), Instituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN), the Ruder Boskovic Institute and Imperial College London amongst others.
This initiative is a task within a work package that is led by Dr Ing. Nicholas Sammut from the Department of Microelectronics and Nanoelectronics in the Faculty of ICT of the University of Malta. The HITRIplus project which includes this work package, has brought together a consortium engaging all relevant stakeholders including all four European heavy-ion cancer-therapy centres, leading EU industries, academia, and research laboratories. They all share the ambition to jointly build a strong pan-European heavy ion therapy research community. HITRIplus has the goal of upgrading the current European research infrastructures, as well as design a new European state-of-the-art heavy-ion cancer-therapy research machine that is more powerful, smaller, cheaper, sustainable, expandable, flexible and that enables innovative technology to be transferred to industry hence opening new technology markets in Europe. Furthermore, HITRIplus is designed to promote the access of the existing facilities of the research and clinical communities as well as educate, train, attract and network new researchers in order to expand the heavy-ion cancer-therapy research community.
HITRIplus is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no: 101008548. HITRIplus is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement no: 101008548.