A research team at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland, working with researchers at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland and Imperial College London, is investigating the use of a laser-based tool to help fight against cancer.

The research used high intensity, high contrast laser pulses produced by the Gemini laser at the U.K. Central Laser Facility, which hosts five high-energy lasers located within the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory available to research scientists. The Gemini laser is a twin beam device that uses titanium-sapphire crystal amplifiers with pump lasers and pulse compressors. Each beam can deliver 15 joules of energy in a pulse duration of 30 femtoseconds -- that’s 30 millionths of one billionth of one second.

High-power lasers generate a bright, ultrashort duration photon beam to examine the effect of laser emissions on biological samples. The hope is to use this technique to offer more effective radiotherapy treatments, replacing current X-ray based methods.

This program builds on research into the use of shorter and more intense bursts of radiation to destroy cancerous cells. The method uses an ultrashort carbon-ion beam with a burst duration of less than a nanosecond. This technique aims to reduce the side effects of the treatment and hopes to improve effectiveness.

Researchers use lasers to generate this ion beam, using the laser energy to heat a target object that rapidly creates the ion beam. The aim is to develop the capability to generate highly pure ion beams of the required very short duration. The research has found that the pureness is dependent on heating time—the faster the time, the cleaner the ion beam. Pureness is essential to prevent side effects.

The advantage of this technique is that by adapting the target, researchers can create different ion beams. This ability will allow further research into the effectiveness of varying ion beams to treat cancer, potentially creating treatments tuned to each patient’s needs to maximize the efficacy of the radiation treatment. The greater the effectiveness of each treatment, the less radiation will need to be applied. This reduction leads to reduced side effects and better long-term success rates.

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