The fundamental physical interactions of the basic constituents of matter (atoms, electrons, photons…) are nowadays also exploited in practical applications in medicine. In particular, radiotherapy for cancer treatment strongly depends on the interaction of radiation with condensed matter, thus further advancing the knowledge in this area is fundamental for cutting-edge techniques such as protontherapy, available in the Centro di Protonterapia di Trento since 2014.
Hadrontherapy is an advanced modality of radiotherapy, in which the photons typically used in treatment in the hospitals are replaced by energetic ion beams (typically protons as in protontherapy, although also carbon or helium), that penetrate into the human tissue and deposit a large fraction of their energy where the tumor is located, preventing undesired damage to the healthy surrounding tissues. Moreover, the particular interactions on the nanometre scale between ions, the secondary electrons they produce, the reactive chemical species arising along the ions tracks, and DNA molecules in cells, give place to an enhanced therapeutic effect of hadrontherapy as compared with conventional radiotherapy.
ECT* researchers take advantage of their wide knowledge on different computational physics methodologies to offer basic insights for the better understanding and potential improvement of hadrontherapy. They employ and develop techniques to address each specific process underlying the interaction of charged particles with realistic biomaterials: Monte Carlo simulations for describing radiation transport, dielectric response theory and time-dependent density functional theory for treating electronic excitations in the condensed phase, or classical molecular dynamics for simulating radiation effects at the molecular level.
Such knowledge is also exploited for the exploration of advanced treatment modalities, such as the use of nanoparticles, which can be internalized in cancer cells and then improve the effectiveness of hadrontherapy through their particular interactions with the ion beams.
Understanding the physical and chemical effects arising in these nanosystems upon irradiation, which justify the enhancement of the biological effects, also requires the use of advanced computational physics methodologies.