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Physics in the Fight Against Cancer

Thursday, 07 December, 2017

The Chair of Medical Physics at LMU celebrates its first 5 years

The Chair of Medical Physics was set up 5 years ago by LMU Munich as part of the MAP Excellence Cluster MAP. Its mission is to uncover new physical insights and develop novel technologies for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. The establishment in Garching houses around 60 researchers and students. In the following interview, Prof. Katia Parodi looks back on her first 5 years as its Director. Parodi is also one of MAP’s coordinators and President of the German Society for Medical Physics.

Professor Parodi, your institute is now 5 years old, congratulations! Can you tell us a little about its beginnings?

Parodi: The instiute was set up in 2012 as an integral component of MAP. My predecessor, Professor Habs, held a Chair in Nuclear Physics, which was repurposed as a Chair of Medical Physics. So I was confronted with the exciting challenge of developing a new specialty at LMU. My first big task was to design a curriculum in Medical Physics for the Master’s degree course in Physics. That curriculum is now up and running and has been very well received by the students, as witnessed by the large numbers of Master’s students we have. Our graduates receive a Master‘s in Physics with a focus on Medical Physics, which opens up a wide range of career perspectives. In addition to being qualified for the role of medical physicist in a hospital, our graduates have excellent job prospects in both industry and academia. My second major task was to draft and implement a program of research.

What are your research goals?

Parodi: From the beginning, we focused on image-guided radiation therapy for cancer patients, using both conventional and innovative radiation sources – in particular particle-based therapies with protons and heavy ions. But we are also working on issues relevant to photon-based therapy. The goal is to provide effective, high-precision therapies for the elimination of tumors, while reducing as far as possible the degree of damage inflicted on the surrounding tissue. This can be achieved in two ways. First, we aim to characterize the patient’s anatomy with greater precision and design the optimal radiation schedule prior to treatment. The second step then involves enhancing the accuracy of tumor targeting by taking advantage of physical processes that allow real-time, in-vivo visualization of the radiation dose actually delivered. One approach makes use of what is called ionoacoustics, in which we measure the minuscule soundwaves that a particle beam generates at the end of its trajectory within the tumor.

What do you find special about the institute and about your work here?

Parodi: Our great strength lies in our personnel, who come from very diverse backgrounds. We have a team working on the physics of laser-generated plasmas, and a group of people with experience in nuclear physics is working on the development of new detectors. We have computer experts for numerical simulations, and specialists in clinical research. The whole field is very international. We recently recruited Marco Riboldi from Milan to a new professorship. His expertise in Bio-Engineering and Magnet Resonance Imaging will be very valuable in our collaboration with the University Medical Center in Großhadern, as well as for CALA. The ultimate purpose of our research is to improve outcomes for patients, so our contacts with partners in clinical medicine and healthcare technology are very important for us. The University Medical Center is one our most important partners, and we also cooperate with centers for particle therapy and with leading international manufacturers of radiation sources and systems that compute appropriate radiation doses and schedules.

What are your plans for the coming years?

Parodi: We will continue to pursue the route we have chosen and follow where it leads. In the new DFG-funded Graduate School in Advanced Medical Physics for Image-Guided Cancer Therapy, we intend to expand our interdisciplinary research and training programs over the next 4½ years. Furthermore, we recently received a 4-year grant from the ERC for a project called SIRMIO, whose goal is to develop a novel instrument with which to monitor the efficacy of proton therapy for cancers in an animal model. Collaborations with hospitals and manufacturers will be extended. In addition to clinically and pre-clinically oriented research with conventional radiation sources, we want to press ahead with our research on the ground-breaking laser-based accelerator concepts being developed by CALA. And we are working to develop a long-term perspective for the new research fields that emerge from MAP in the period after its funding ends.

And what is your personal perspective after 5 years here?

Parodi: It has been an arduous but very rewarding time. Working with so many gifted and motivated colleagues has been a great pleasure for me, and the research environment in Munich is excellent.  Although the institute has grown so much, we all pull together on many different projects, and the working atmosphere is very harmonious. Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to be sure which group a certain individual belongs to, because there are so many contacts and so much interaction between them. I hope this will continue, and will do everything I can to ensure that it does.

Interview: Karolina Schneider