New particle accelerator arrives at Manchester

A major milestone has recently been achieved in the construction of the UK’s first high-energy proton therapy project at The Christie hospital with the delivery on 22nd June of the core component - the 250 MeV proton cyclotron that will provide protons to each of the three patient treatment rooms at this world-leading facility. This £125M scheme is the largest particle accelerator project currently underway in the UK, and is progressing on time and on budget ahead of a planned start for patient treatments in 2018.

The Christie - Particle Accelerator
The 90-ton Varian superconducting cyclotron being gently lowered (on 22nd June 2017) into its shielded operating pit within The Christie hospital proton therapy facility , where it will spend the next 30 years. (Image credit: The Christie)

Although proton therapy was proposed as far back as 1948, the world’s first hospital centre (at Clatterbridge Hospital near Liverpool) only commenced eye treatments in 1989. Clatterbridge’s 62 MeV protons have insufficient penetration for most tumours and other countries now have higher-energy centres, and following several proposals in the 90s and noughties, the NHS case for two national treatment centres was finally approved several years ago with the support of Cockcroft Institute scientists such as Dr. Hywel Owen who served on the project Technical Advisory Group. 

The procurement of the Christie equipment was led by Prof. Ranald Mackay, and a contract was awarded to Varian Medical Systems to supply a cutting-edge superconducting cyclotron treatment system for The Christie (and another one at UCLH in London); together these two centres will treat up to 1,500 patients per year once both are operational after 2018, fulfilling the UK’s clinical requirements for proton treatments which are today met by referring patients for treatments overseas in the USA and Switzerland. As well as giving patients better treatments this scheme will also save the taxpayer money in the long run. Thanks to the superb procurement and management by The Christie with its partners such as Arup - the civil engineers responsible for this phenomenally complicated multi-storey building that combines both a clinical treatment centre with heavy radiation engineering - the 3-year construction is proceeding on time, and on budget.

The ‘business end’ of the treatment centre comprises a state-of-the-art 2.4 Tesla superconducting cyclotron weighing around 90 tonnes, that will provide protons with kinetic energies up to 250 MeV to each of the three patient treatment rooms (just as we describe in our tutorial sheets!). A referred patient will typically visit the centre for 30 to 50 individual treatment ‘fractions’, during each of which they spend about 15 minutes in the treatment room being prepared for about a minute’s worth of irradiation to give a prescribed dose of perhaps 1-2 Grays of protons, finely directed to sub-mm accuracy using a hundred-ton delivery gantry that rotates around the patient table.

The Christie was selected as a treatment site not only for its geographical advantages, but also because it is Europe’s largest single-site cancer centre and is one of the world’s leading centres for cancer research - introducing many technical innovations in radiotherapy. This new centre has enhanced the already excellent research links with our University, and several members and ex-members of the School are now part of the Christie/Manchester PRECISE collaboration (led by Prof. Karen Kirkby) to exploit the opportunities offered by the new centre.

One exciting new project is the forthcoming research beamline that will utilise the cyclotron to provide protons for research in the additional ‘4th room’ at the centre. Hywel Owen has assisted Christie colleagues in the £350k procurement of this beamline, which will be constructed later in 2017 and which will enable technical and clinical research from late 2018, delivering 250 MeV protons into a unique facility much larger than available elsewhere. It is intended that this become a national resource, so if you have a use for protons from 70 to 250 MeV you should get in touch!

The research programme at The Christie sits alongside many other initiatives both in the School and across the University; these include ongoing work with The Christie on diagnostic imaging by the Nuclear Group (Dr. David Cullen), dosimetry by the Particle Physics Group (Prof. Cinzia da Via), and various projects being carried out by the Accelerator Group and in the Cockcroft Institute. Dr. Owen and Dr. Rob Appleby have already explored methods to upgrade proton facility energies to enable proton-based imaging, and Prof. Roger Jones is working with Christie colleagues to explore high-energy electron therapy. All of these projects aim to take our more fundamental work and apply it to the benefit of human health. Next year will be exciting as we install and commission both the therapy centre and the beamline, and an update on progress will be presented in a future newsletter article.

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