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Laser technology could improve radiation treatments for cancer patients

Ultrafast laser technology represents a significant advancement in medical technology, particularly in the realm of cancer treatment.

This breakthrough, led by researchers at INRS and McGill University Health Centre, demonstrates the potential of using high-power laser pulses to accelerate electrons to energies comparable to those used in radiation therapy.

“The strength of this electron source stems from its simplicity. A single focusing optic in ambient air produces an electron beam capable of delivering a yearly radiation dose in less than one second to a person standing one meter away,” noted the study authors. 

Key insights

The key discovery is that a laser beam focused in ambient air can generate a plasma, which in turn can accelerate electrons to megaelectronvolt (MeV) levels. This is a substantial increase from the previously known limit of a few kiloelectronvolts (keV). 

“For the first time, we showed that, under certain conditions, a laser beam tightly focused in ambient air can accelerate electrons reaching energies in the MeV (megaelectronvolt) range, the same order of magnitude as some irradiators used in radiation therapy for cancer,” explained François Légaré, Director of the EMT Centre at INRS.

FLASH radiotherapy

Such high-energy electrons could be instrumental in FLASH radiotherapy, a new method for treating resistant tumors more effectively and with less damage to surrounding healthy tissue.

According to the researchers, the FLASH effect is still poorly understood but seems to involve a rapid deoxygenation of healthy tissues, reducing their sensitivity to radiation.

Safer practices

The researchers at INRS and MUHC emphasize the importance of their discovery not just for its medical applications, but also for the need to implement safer laboratory practices. The laser beams can produce radiation doses high enough to pose a health risk.

“The electron energies observed (MeV) allow them to travel more than three meters in air, or several millimeters under the skin. This poses a radiation exposure risk for users of the laser source,” explained study first author Simon Vallières.

Furthermore, by taking measurements near the source, the team observed a high radiation dose rate of electrons – three to four times greater than those used in conventional radiation therapy. “Uncovering this radiation hazard is an opportunity to implement safer practices in laboratories,” said Vallières.

Improved radiation treatments

The study opens the door to further research into the FLASH effect in radiotherapy and the development of more effective cancer treatments. It’s a prime example of how scientific research can lead to practical and potentially life-saving applications.

“No study has been able to explain the nature of the FLASH effect. However, the electron sources used in FLASH radiotherapy have similar characteristics to the one we produced by focusing our laser strongly in ambient air,” said Vallières.

“Once the radiation source is better controlled, further research will allow us to investigate what causes the FLASH effect and to, ultimately, offer better radiation treatments to cancer patients.”

The study is published in the journal Laser & Photonics Review.

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