Case study - Physics

Boron Neutron Capture Therapy (BNCT) is an experimental treatment technique for cancers which are highly malignant, infiltrating the healthy tissue around the main tumour mass. These cancers are some of the most difficult to treat and in many cases remain incurable.

The Birmingham research set out to harness expertise gained over many years in nuclear and accelerator physics in order to find a way to use an accelerator-driven source for the neutron beam, bringing their knowledge  to bear on some of the most difficult problems in cancer management.

Research objectives

One of the major factors limiting the take-up of BNCT has been that only a nuclear research reactor was thought to be capable of generating the type of neutron beam needed for this therapy.  This creates obvious practical and financial problems – research reactors are expensive, and are rarely sited near hospitals. An alternative way of generating these neutron beams was needed.

Research outputs

The Birmingham research demonstrated that an alternative approach, using a linear particle accelerator rather than a reactor, could be applied in a hospital setting. This is crucial to making BNCT available at lower cost and in a much wider range of locations.

Impact of the research

The impact of the research undertaken by the Birmingham group has been through identifying an effective accelerator-based neutron source (ABNS).  Without such a source, the use of the therapy would continue to be limited to the small number of suitable nuclear research reactors.  The Birmingham Group’s pioneering research has enabled and encouraged clinicians at University Hospital Birmingham and in other countries, such as Japan, Argentina and Israel, to make progress towards hospital-sited BNCT treatments.  This advance would not have been possible without the Birmingham Group’s research findings.

The most advanced hospital-based application of BNCT so far has been achieved in Japan; the first clinical trial of the therapy using an accelerator-based neutron source began in Kyoto in October 2012, where patients have been treated on the Sumiton cyclotron system.

The key researchers in Birmingham were: Professor T Derek Beynon (Head of Group), Dr Dennis Allen (Research Fellow, School of Astronomy and Physics) and Stuart Green (Honorary Research Fellow, School of Physics and Astronomy, now Honorary Professor; also Clinical Scientist at University Hospital Birmingham). There was also strong support and clinical leadership from Professors Nicholas James  of the School of Cancer Studies and Garth Cruickshank in the Department of Neurosurgery at Queen Elizabeth Hospital.

Learn more

If you would like to know more about our research in nuclear physics using our two particle accelerators, please visit our Nuclear Research pages. For information on our undergraduate and postgraduate courses in Nuclear Physics, please follow these links: