Heidelberg University

Fighting cancer with physics - a journey through the field of particle therapy

Julia Bauer, Heidelberg University Hospital


The management of cancer diseases is nowadays built on three major pillars- surgery, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. The idea of using external photon beams to kill tumor cells and cure patients has emerged shortly after the discovery of the Röntgen radiation. A remarkable technical development over the last decades has led to today's modern radiotherapy techniques that offer a highly efficient treatment for a variety of cancer diseases. This standard treatment is complemented by a comparably new modality, the irradiation with charged particle beams. A rapidly growing number of facilities all over the world offers particle therapy, mainly using proton beams. The Heidelberg Ion-beam Therapy center (HIT), which started clinical operation in 2009, has treated more than 6000 patients to date. It is a unique research facility providing proton beams as well as carbon-, oxygen- and helium-ion beams.

We start our journey with an introduction of the basic physical principles and rationales for particle therapy. We discuss a variety of technical, biological and clinical aspects that are involved in today's standard patient care and I show you the potential and limitations of current treatment facilities. Our journey takes us from routine operation at HIT to particle therapy related research with an overview on hot research topics that are currently addressed by physicists working in the field of particle therapy in Heidelberg.