Hadrontherapy with Synchrotron - Protons and carbon ion particles

New Technology Is Making a Difference in the Fight Against Cancer


Synchrotron and hadrontherapy are ideally suited to treat tumours that are deep-seated, located close to critical organs and respond poorly to conventional photon or electron radiotherapy.

  • cancer of the prostate and rectum (pelvic district)
  • pancreatic cancer
  • melanoma of the rectum and vagina
  • abdominal area - cancer of the liver and bile
  • brain cancer
  • cranial base cancer
  • central nervous system
  • lung cancer
  • tumors of epithelial origin
  • eyeball and eye socket
  • head and neck
  • paranasal sinuses and nasal cavities
  • salivary glands
  • bone and soft tissue


CNAO’s ‘High Technology’ components consist of a set of accelerators and transport lines of particle beams. The beams are generated by sources that produce carbon ions and protons. The most important accelerator machine is the Synchrotron. The synchrotron at CNAO is a prototype resulting from the research in high energy physics made possible through the collaboration of the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN), CERN (Switzerland), GSI (Germany), LPSC (France) and of the University of Pavia University (Italy). It is based mostly on Italian technology.

The particle beam is accelerated in the synchrotron and travels about 30,000 kilometers in a half second to reach the desired energy. The beams are then sent to one of the three treatment rooms. Above this station there is a magnet of 150 tons which bends 90 degrees the particle beam and directs it from above to the person to be healed.

Rapid technological progress in recent years has led to an evolution in all areas of medicine and has significantly influenced radiation oncology. Today, a new frontier in radiation therapy is represented by the hadrontherapy, which is the use of protons and atomic nuclei (ions) called hadrons (from the Greek hadrós, strong) that are subjected to a strong nuclear force.

The advantages of hadrontherapy compared to traditional radiotherapy are:

  1. The release of energy (and thus the destruction of cells) is done selectively, targeting only cancer cells. The damage incurred in the body on initial penetration is relatively small and significant release of energy is confined only to the vicinity where the cancer is located (a phenomenon referred to as the Bragg Peak). This maximizes the destruction of cancerous tissues while minimizing collateral effects on healthy tissues
  2. The beam of hadronic particles remains collimated as it penetrates the biological material. The high collimation of the beams of hadrons further minimizes damage to healthy tissues
  3. The energy release mechanism for hadrontherapy causes a large amount of breaks on the chemical links present in biological macromolecules, especially DNA. The latter has the ability to repair itself, but if the number of broken links is excesive it loses its function of self-reparation and the cells remain inactive and die. In conventional radiotherapy the DNA damage is modest; on the contrary, in the hadrontherapy with carbon ions the number of breaks allows the destruction even of tumors resistant to conventional therapy.

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