Can the Hadron Collider Cure Cancer?

April 17, 2009

Russian researchers say high-energy particle colliders may hold the key to curing cancer.

The idea that a giant atom smasher may hold the cure for cancer sounds like the stuff of science fiction. Yet that is exactly what Russian scientists are proposing their hadron collider-based device will be able to do once it is completed.

The large hadron collider (LHC) is a high-energy particle accelerator. The first one was built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and lies on the border between France and Switzerland. The Russians have not completed their version of the LHC, but Yevgeny Levichev, deputy head of the Budker Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Russian Sciences Academy, says it will be like the European one, only smaller.

According to Levichev, a stream of protons no thicker than a strand of hair will be accelerated to the speed of light and directed at the tumor. The researchers refer to the device as an “ionic scalpel,” and they say its precision will allow physicians to target just the cancer cells, sparing adjacent normal tissue. This is an improvement over today’s radiotherapy methods, which tend to harm nearby noncancerous cells during the treatment process.

Levichev estimates that the device could be used to cure as many as 2000 patients with cancer each year. CERN offered a similar hypothesis last year. Whether LHC can be used to cure cancer remains untested, because CERN’s LHC malfunctioned in September 2008 and is not expected to become operational again until September 2009.

CERN's large hadron collider.