Treating cancer with physics

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In the last financial year, Cancer Research UK spent 332 million pounds in the hope of finding various cancer cures and yet cancer is still as scary to the general public as it ever has been. In recent years there have been many unique ideas concerning cancer treatments, however, it has only been in the last decade that physicists have joined the fight.

Just last week, Advanced Oncotherapy, a British firm purchased a small spin off company of CERN. The primary aim of this company is to use proton beam therapy (PBT) to destroy cancerous cells. As opposed to conventional radiotherapy this new technique uses protons to destroy the cancer cells as opposed to X-rays, the benefit of this is that protons can be focussed more accurately.

This means that it can target the cancerous cells without damaging the surrounding healthy tissue, this is of particular importance for areas of the body such as the brain and the spine, where damaging surrounding tissue can lead to paralysis and even death.

The idea of physicists turning their expertise to biology is by no means a unique or particularly new idea, and you need not look any further than our University for an example. The multimillion pound plasma institute in collaboration with the Biology department is developing atmospheric plasma jets for biomedical applications, which one day may lead to cancer therapies. This type of cancer treatment uses the plasma to trigger a biological mechanism in the cell called apoptosis, also known as programmed cell death.

Briefly an overview of what a plasma constitutes, is required. A plasma is defined as the fourth state of matter, however, this is more a label than a true description. A plasma is an electrically neutral medium which consists of both positively and negatively charges particles, as well as neutral atoms and molecules. An electrically neutral medium simply means that the overall charge of the substance is approximately zero.
It is because of these electrically charged particles that a plasma is unique and thus can be classified as its own state of matter. With plasma defined it’s possible to say more about how it can be used as a cancer therapy.

Firstly, cancer cells are different from normal cells. The over arching difference is that a cancer cell will continue to divide and spread without undergoing the natural cell life-cycle which ultimately ends in apoptosis. Now if the cancer cells would respond to cell signals and undergo this programmed cell death then the cancerous cells would destroy themselves.

The beauty behind this method is that the cancer cells would effectively destroy themselves without any need for any potentially harmful radiotherapy. This means that surrounding tissue would remain healthy and remove the need to unnecessarily destroy cells.

The science behind this is rather complex, however, the simple version is easy to follow. The plasma creates a series of molecules called reactive oxygen series, one of the most well known of which is ozone. The plasma creates a series of molecules called reactive oxygen series, one of the most well known of these is ozone. Using a nozzle to channel the plasma onto the desired cells has shown that these reactive oxygen series induce apoptosis.

This nozzle is attached to the end of a hollow syringe which tends to have radius in the micrometre range. This syringe would then be inserted into the desired location and the is plasma funnelled through it. It is then dispersed by the nozzle; this means the treatment is incredibly targeted and able to avoid harm to other cells in the body.

Even though the field has developed rapidly from its recent starting point to the current day. It is however still very early days for this type of research.

It’s due in part to this competition that scientific progress can advance as rapidly as it does. Another bonus of this type of project is that it merges scientific disciplines together.

Now that people from various scientific backgrounds are getting on board, the future for cancer therapies is very bright indeed.

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