Researchers to watch

A more efficient and gentle treatment of cancer

When Kristian Ytre-Hauge worked on his master’s thesis, he never dreamed of being one of those bringing the technology to Bergen.

Kristian Ytre-Hauge
TREATING CANCER WITH SURGICAL PRECISION: Proton radiation allows radiation dosages to be calculated more precisely, and gives fewer side effects. Through support from Bergen Research Foundation, Kristian Ytre-Hauge has established a research project on particle radiation.
Elin Espe Stensvand, University of Bergen.

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“Being allowed to work in a field that is in constant change is a great motivation,” says Kristian Ytre-Hauge,  researcher at the Department of Physics and Technology at the University of Bergen (UiB).

In 2014 he was awarded 8 million NOK (approximately 865 000 Euros) by the Bergen Research Foundation (BFS), and appointed leader of a research project on particle therapy. The goal is to offer a gentler radiation treatment to patients.

An alternative radiation treatment

Particle therapy is radiation therapy with protons and heavier ions. This treatment is an alternative to the more common treatment of cancer through radiation therapy. Particle therapy allows higher dosages of radiation, yet with less radiation damage.

“Proton radiation allows for calculating the dosages of radiation down to a millimetre, making it possible to concentrate radiation to a very small area, right where the tumour is located. The effect on the tissue surrounding the tumour is minimised, and the side effects are fewer,” Ytre-Hauge explains.

Because of these benefits, particle radiation can be applied close to sensitive parts of the body, such as the head and the chest. The treatment is especially suited for children with cancer, since it minimises radiation damage to healthy tissue, and has the benefit of less side effects.

A new field of research in Norway

There are around 60 particle therapy centres in the world today, with nearly as many being planned or built. In the autumn of 2015, the first two patients were treated at the newly opened Skandion Clinic in Uppsala, Sweden.

“Sweden is ahead of Norway when it comes to particle therapy. Norwegian patients have been sent abroad to receive particle therapy, but more would have had the opportunity, if only we were able to treat them domestically,” Ytre-Hauge says.

It is important for Norway as a country to devote itself to more research and development in the field, the young researcher believes.

“It is demanding and costly to send people out of the country to be treated. More and more doctors in Norway think it is about time that we offer particle therapy to Norwegian patients in Norway,” says Ytre-Hauge.

Experimental measurements

His own interest in particle therapy was awakened when he was first introduced to medical physics during his Bachelor’s degree at UiB.

“When I realised I wanted to write my Master’s degree on particle therapy, very little was done in the field here in Norway. Now, there are plans to be able to offer particle therapy here as well, but at the time, this was not on our minds,” he says.

Early on, he made contact with the radiation therapy environment, and his future supervisors on both Master’s and PhD level: Odd Harald Odland and Dieter Røhrich. Working on his PhD, Ytre-Hauge visited GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung, Germany, performing experimental measurements of radiation. GSI is a large-scale heavy-ion accelerator facility, used for experiments by researchers from all over the world.

Teamwork is necessary

In 2015, Ytre-Hauge published an article, based on his earlier work.

“The article concerns a project where we develop a radiation detector, or an apparatus applied to measuring the amount of radiation to healthy tissue. It can be used to evaluate the long-term effects of radiation,” he explains.

The money granted by BFS makes it possible to establish a broad field of research on particle therapy, involving several PhD candidates and researchers from UiB and Haukeland University Hospital.

“This is a field which demands team players. There are so many aspects to particle therapy, from developing better imaging methods, to controlling treatment and perform research on the biological effects. You need an interdisciplinary approach to succeed,” he says.

An international approach

Ytre-Hauge is in a close collaboration with Haukeland University Hospital, where he works one day a week. Another goal is to develop links to international collaboration partners, increasing research competence.

The location of new regional proton centres has been planned since 2013. A report ordered by the Norwegian government recommends establishing centres both in Bergen and Oslo. The hope is being able to offer particle treatment in the first half of the 2020s. Ytre-Hauge is optimistic.

“This is definitely a realistic goal, but we have to depend on a political willpower, as well as a continuous planning process to get there,” he says.