QNRF Newsletter Archive

Researchers in Qatar target cancer and a national collaboration with CERN

At the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire (CERN), physicists and engineers use the world’s largest and most sophisticated scientific instruments to study the simplest forms of matter. This facility most recently drew worldwide attention as the grounds of the recently discovered Higgs boson, a discovery that won the 2013 Nobel Prize in physics.

Dr Alfredo Castaneda (Texas A&M University at Qatar) standing in front of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector at CERN, where GEM could be installed.
Researchers in Qatar are turning to the Large Hadron Collider facilities at CERN to address needs relevant to the Qatar National Research Strategy, specifically healthcare objectives related to cancer research.

“Basically we are working on developing on some particle detectors, and those detectors have multidisciplinary use,” said Dr Othmane Bouhali, Director of Research Computing at Texas A&M University at Qatar and Principal Investigator on a QNRF NPRP-funded study on cancer beam therapy and imaging techniques. “One of the projects I am working on now is to use the detectors for medical applications. Basically, these detectors are very sensitive; they provide very high precision and efficiency, and they also have a very high gain, which makes them the ultimate choice for these kinds of applications.”

In general, the application of radiation to cancer tumors is nothing new. However, to date, the method has involved the detection and use of photons. Now, researchers are working to apply ion-based - positively or negatively charged - beam detectors. The differences are many in terms of how exact the ion-based beams can be when targeting cancer cells in extremely sensitive areas of the body, e.g., brain tumors.

The Gas Electron Multiplier (GEM) detector technology Dr Othmane is working with detects particles based on their positive or negative charge—“so when one of these particles crosses the gas, it will kick out an electron from these gas molecules,” he explained, “and this electron, because it has an electric field [that is of a negative charge], will gain sufficient energy to move. When it moves, it will also eject another molecule and kick out another electron, and at the end we have a large avalanche of electrons, which will give us a higher [precise] signal.”

Using sophisticated electronics at CERN, the team is detecting particles that give them an indication of the beam location within a few tenths of a micron (a human hair has an average width of 300 microns), he said. So with several detectors on a job, the entire trajectory of an ion particle will be read very precisely.

“You don’t want the beam to hit other areas except those in the area of the tumor,” Dr Othmane said. “So you need to protect the physicians and the nurses, so we need monitoring devices to detect exactly where the beam is going, where it’s coming from and where it’s going out and we can use these ion detectors to measure this data.”

The team has run simulations and is in the process of publishing findings along these lines, within the realm of accelerator physics - “we have intensive simulation that is running, and we are using the super computer at TAMUQ that has been bought by Qatar Foundation. And one simulation can easily take three to four weeks,” Dr Othmane explained.

More than two years ago, CERN launched a knowledge transfer initiative called Physics for Health. Dr Othmane recently traveled to Geneva to meet with the Director of Applications at CERN and discuss the possibility of Qatar’s involvement in the program going forward.

“Having Qatar participate in this project is not only for research, it also gives a big opportunity to the country to engage in capacity building,” he said. “We would have access to all software, experimental software, simulation software, and training programs, so we could send students from Qatar to do a summer internship in application at CERN, which is a very, very good idea.”

Through collaborations with CERN, Qatar could also send secondary school teachers to the facility to receive training that would boost their teaching skills.

“Of course having Qatar involved in the medical applications can be very important because one of the Qatar National Research Strategy pillars is health. I represented TAMUQ on the national committee for the research strategy, a committee appointed by Her Highness Sheikha Moza, and one of the recommendations of this committee is to work on therapy, specifically, sophisticated medical applications from the physics point of view,” Dr Othmane said.

In the end, Dr Othmane said that this research and the work at CERN would not have been possible without the support of QNRF. "Without the NPRP funding, I wouldn’t have been able to travel to CERN on behalf of one of Qatar’s university research programs."

“So all of this is thanks to the QNRF funding. This past October we had a high-level discussion on the subject of an official membership for Qatar at CERN.”

Creation of an Experimental High Energy Physics Program in Qatar for Future Colliders

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