Laser-focused Belfast researchers’ discovery to advance cancer treatment

5 Nov 2021

Image: © Mark Kostich/

Queen’s University Belfast researchers developed a tool that is ‘very effective’ in treating types of tumours which are resistant to other forms of radiation.

Researchers at Queen’s University, Belfast have discovered a tool which will aid future investigations into more effective forms of cancer treatment.

The project was led by Prof Marco Borghesi from the School of Mathematics and Physics at Queen’s. Borghesi and his team worked closely with researchers from the University of Strathclyde and Imperial College London.

Future Human

The experts’ tool involves the use of high-powered lasers to generate a beam of carbon ion with the ability to target cancerous tumours.

According to Borghesi, the tool is “very effective in treating types of tumours which are resistant to other forms of radiation”.

Dr Aodhan McIlvenny, a Queen’s University researcher and lead author of the resulting study, described the process: “When we shine a short burst of light – a laser – on a very thin object, we can push it forward at very high speeds. Typically, the energy transferred by the laser is carried away by particles we don’t want, and we aren’t able to use it.

“However, we have now discovered that by heating the object extremely quickly, we can remove these unwanted particles before hitting the object with the intense laser pulse.

He concluded: “This means that we are then able to produce almost pure beams of the particle type we are interested in – in this instance it is carbon ions. This gives us the ability to select a specific type of radiation and use it for targeted irradiation experiments in new areas that we have not yet explored.”

Borghesi and his team have now started cell irradiation experiments using this beam, in collaboration with their colleagues in the Patrick G Johnston Centre for cancer research at Queen’s.

Prof Kevin Prise, who works in the centre, said: “This a major step forward in our ability to test new beams for future radiotherapy applications and it allows us to now explore potential new biology, which will help to explore ways to advance cancer treatment.”

The project was funded by the Engineering and Physical Research Council. The researchers worked with the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Central Laser Facility.

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Blathnaid O’Dea is Careers reporter at Silicon Republic