Brussels, Jan 2004
New hope for cancer patients sickened by chemo- and radiation therapy could be around the corner, Dutch scientists report. Inspiration for the project came from an unusual source… the European Space Agency (ESA).
For many, the exploration of space is an odyssey born out of science fiction, and made possible over time through human ingenuity. But satellite monitoring, Mars exploration and international space stations come at a cost which, some argue, has dubious returns to average people. So, when news of a potential treatment for one of the world's major diseases can be traced back to space technology, critics of expensive space programmes sit up and listen.
A new, non-invasive system for cancer treatment is being developed with technology from the European space industry. The treatment's first target, which could be ready as early as 2006, is breast cancer – second to lung cancer as the leading cause of carcinogenic deaths in women today, especially between 35 and 69 years of age.
The invention – the brainchild of Hugo Brunsveld van Hulten, a Dutch mathematician turned scientist – is the first 'product' to emerge out of the new European Space Incubator (ESI), located within ESA's European Space Research and Test Centre in the Netherlands. He came up with a way of helping oncologist physicians by combining two techniques: using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to pinpoint and diagnose cancerous tissue, and hitting this with high-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) to burn away malignant cells. He called this dual approach 'ActiveFU'.
"I came to the conclusion that [using] a dedicated HIFU system with a quality imaging MRI-breast-coil – the device that actually generates the image – could be a major breakthrough," explains van Hulten.
Kung fu on cancer
Since ActiveFU is more efficient and takes place in outpatient facilities, patients suffer less and the healthcare sector saves money. Through a combination of medical research and entrepreneurial spirit, van Hulten's findings show how investment today in cutting-edge science like space technologies has great potential for improving European lives tomorrow – a goal also shared by EU policy-makers, such as Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin.
ESI's manager Bruno Naulais praises the project for showing that incubation centres can take an idea and roll it out into an actual business. Incubation centres, he adds, provide more than a nurturing environment for creative thinkers like van Hulten, they help them craft a viable business plan, test technologies and 'grow' the projects to a point where they may attract venture capital to finance further development.
More work is needed before cancer patients can be cured by this treatment, but the technical support provided by ESA's medical experts and engineers should prove indispensable in making it a reality. ESA's capacity to simulate complex systems has been critical to the project's success so far. One example is ESA's EuroSim software, which was originally developed to simulate satellite movement in real time, but helped van Hulten's team solve certain engineering problems in the system's design.