Lower-cost radiation therapy through electron acceleration

More than half of cancer patients receive radiation as part of treatment, but current methods rely on complicated machinery and outdated technology. Dr. Charles Thangaraj and his team at Fermilab are developing compact and powerful sources of electron beams based on “deep tech” advances in superconductivity and particle acceleration technology that could significantly reduce the costs of radiation therapy.

Tell us about your research…

Our research focuses on developing accelerator technologies that will provide powerful, compact, low-cost electron beam sources for several applications such as radiation therapy, medical device sterilization, food sterilization and waste water treatment, all of which directly and indirectly affect human health. We do this by incorporating several “deep tech” advances such as superconducting technology and advanced accelerator science.  Fermilab has fifty years of expertise in particle accelerator technology and we bring this expertise in solving these challenges.

Superconducting 650 MHz cavities that form the “muscle” behind the Fermilab electron accelerator

Can you explain that to a non-scientist?

Electron beams are an exceptional source of energy that are capable of initiating chemical reactions without the need for catalysts, high temperature, or high pressure. The penetrating nature of the electrons and x-rays provides significant benefits for applications such as radiation therapy.

In short, electron beam technology provides an efficient, safe, and environmentally friendly way to drive chemical reactions. As a simple everyday example, materials that have been successfully processed via electron beam include plastics and rubber, wire and cable insulation, and ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene for hip and joint replacement in the medical industry. From a business perspective, electron beam accelerator sales eclipse $2 billion annually and provide added value to products of more than $500 billion every year. However, adoption has been relatively slow because of a general lack of knowledge of the technology.

Unfortunately, old conventional technology that are available on the market have limitations in that they are not energy efficient, take up a large footprint, and can be complicated to use and maintain. Our research at Fermilab is bridging this critical gap via our advanced beam and accelerator science research by making accelerators simple, compact and powerful.

How could it someday impact patient lives?

Just to give one example, the International Agency for Research on Cancer has estimated that by 2035 the number of new cancers per year will reach 29.4M. This will have an enormous societal burden with the most significant impact in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs)  with underdeveloped healthcare systems. Radiation treatments are an essential component of effective cancer control. Developing countries are unable to afford such therapies, and the development of high-quality, inexpensive and reliable compact accelerators will directly enable deployment of these life-saving technologies, thereby transforming millions of lives while assuring safety and quality of care in these settings.