Training future experts in the fight against cancer

21 December 2021

The leading role of CERN in fundamental research is complemented by its contribution to applications for the benefit of society. A strong example is the Heavy Ion Therapy Masterclass (HITM) school, which took place from 17 to 21 May 2021. Attracting more than 1000 participants from around the world, many of whom were young students and early-stage researchers, the school demonstrated the enormous potential to train the next generation of experts in this vital application. It was the first event of the European Union project HITRIplus (Heavy Ion Therapy Research Integration), in which CERN is a strategic partner along with other research infrastructures, universities, industry partners, the four European heavy-ion therapy centres and the South East European International Institute for Sustainable Technologies (SEEIIST). As part of a broader “hands-on training” project supported by the CERN and Society Foundation with emphasis on capacity building in Southeast Europe, the event was originally planned to be hosted in Sarajevo but was held online due to the pandemic. 

The school’s scientific programme highlighted the importance of developments in fundamental research for cancer diagnostics and treatment. Focusing on treatment planning, it covered everything needed to deliver a beam to a tumour target, including the biological response of cancerous and healthy tissues. The Next Ion Medical Machine Study (NIMMS) group delivered many presentations from experts and young researchers, starting from basic concepts to discussions of open points and plans for upgrades. Expert-guided practical sessions were based on the matRad open-source professional toolkit, developed by the German cancer research centre DKFZ for training and research. Several elements of the course were inspired by the International Particle Therapy Masterclasses.  

Virtual visits to European heavy-ion therapy centres and research infrastructures were ranked by participants among the most exciting components of the course. There were also plenty of opportunities for participants to interact with experts in dedicated sessions, including a popular session on entrepreneurship by the CERN Knowledge Transfer group. This interactive approach had a big impact on participants, several of which were motivated to pursue careers in related fields and to get actively involved at their home institutes. This future expert workforce will become the backbone for building and operating future heavy-ion therapy and research facilities that are needed to fight cancer worldwide (see Linacs to narrow radiotherapy gap).

Further support is planned at upcoming HITRIplus schools on clinical and medical aspects, as well as HITRIplus internships, to optimally access existing European heavy-ion therapy centres and contribute to relevant research projects. 

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