Computer-chemist to investigate cancer splitting protons – University of Copenhagen

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23 December 2011

Computer-chemist to investigate cancer splitting protons

Radiation therapy where doctors bombard cancer cells with protons rather than photons is on the rise because protons can be targeted more precisely at the tumour which means they spare adjacent tissue. No one knows exactly how the protons work but computational chemistry might be able to explain just that .

Lundbeck funds radioation therapy research

Now chemistry student Birgitte Olai Milhøj has been awarded a 1.7 million DKK PhD grant from the Lundbeck Foundation to investigate just what happens when protons thunder through a living cell. And understanding this could be a great help to doctors. “I hope to achieve computational methods that’ll help doctors choose radiation doses with the best possible effect, but with little or no collateral damage” explains Milhøj.



Cannonball method has unknown effect

Hadron therapy, as the proton radiation is rightly known, works in part because the relatively heavy particles tear through the DNA-strings like a cannonball, but there is a possible secondary line of attack. The protons make water in the cells split into free radicals. These free radicals immediately attack DNA, RNA and all the other molecules allowing cells to reproduce and repair themselves.

Chemistry theory to answer the question ?How?

Supplying hadron therapy requires cyclotrons as big as houses and there are none on offer in Denmark. In Switzerland, Germany and USA however doctors have been experimenting with the costly method for some 40 years. Birgitte Olai Milhøj’s task over the next three years will be to uncover just how large the effects of the secondary chemical reactions are, and whether they can be made to have greater precision than the primary cannonball method. All using computational chemistry, explains Milhøj. “Experiments and testing can show what works. Theory shows us how it works”, claims Milhøj who is carrying out her Ph.D. project supervised by Stephan Sauer who is an Associate Professor at the Department of Chemistry and a highly regarded theoretical chemist.
National research hospital Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen recently applied for funding to build the first Hadron therapy facility in Denmark. If the application goes through the centre should be completed by 2015. Just in time to start using the insights supplied by Birgitte Olai Milhøj and her computational chemistry methods.