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The world’s first vertical nanobeam to enable cancer care to be individualised for the patient

The University of Surrey Ion Beam Centre (IBC) in collaboration with the Gray Cancer Institute is working on a £1.2M project which is underpinned by a prestigious grant of £800k from the Wolfson Foundation. The funding will be used to build the world’s first vertical scanning focussed nanobeam which will be used to analyse how radiation affects living cells. Radiation therapy is second only to surgery as a cure for cancer in the UK and so this research has a large potential impact on patient survival and quality of life. The new beam line will also be used to look at the processes which may lead to cancer and the risks associated with low level exposure to radiation (e.g. in structures built on or out of granite).

The new nanobeam at the IBC will be able to provide data about the radiation sensitivity of tumours. Some tumours are known to be normally radiation resistant, but display hyper-sensitivity to very low doses. This means that a very small dose of radiation can have a much larger than expected effect in terms of destroying the tumour. To help clinicians test these theories, data from the IBC will be used to the construct virtual tumours. These virtual tumours can then be used to test the efficacy of different treatment strategies.

The Ion Beam Centre already houses one of the World’s largest and most advanced facilities. In the new nanobeam, the ions will be shot into the target at about one tenth the speed of light (70,000,000 mph). In addition to helping understand the way in which radiation affects living cells, these ions can also be used to map the elemental structure of the sample in three dimensions. This is done by analysing the radiation they give off as they pass through the sample and the way in which some of them bounce back while others pass through. By carrying out all these types of analyses simultaneously a three dimensional elemental picture of the sample is constructed. Until now the IBC has been unable to analyse liquids. This is because of gravity which means that liquid samples have to be held perfectly horizontal while the analysis takes place. With a vertical beam it is therefore possible to directly analyse liquids. As human cells and indeed the entire human body is ~70% water, this means that the IBC will be able to analyse cells and see, for instance, the interaction between chemotherapeutic drugs and radiation.

Research on non liquid samples using the IBC’s horizontal beam lines has already answered questions such as: what is the composition of paints in 16th century paintings? What is in the particulate matter that comes out of volcanoes? What are the metal atoms in proteins and how many are there? How do parasitic wasps lay their eggs? And what makes 1920’s German bank notes toxic?

The new vertical nanobeam will also have many other applications including chemistry at the atomic scale, the creation of novel materials and nanostructures and other, as yet unknown procedures.

Stuart Miller | alfa
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