CERN Accelerating science

Interview with Steve Myers

Medical applications play an important role at CERN and recently the DG has decided to structure them under a common umbrella. Steve Myers, CERN's Director of Accelerators and Technology has been appointed as  the first Head of CERN's Office for Medical Applications. We have decided to dedicate October's issue of the PH Newsletter to this interesting field and asked Steve Myers for an interview. Following his long-standing career on accelerators and his experience from LEP and the LHC, Steve discusses about his future ambitions and the challenges of his new role. 


What do you think about your new role and what is your greatest ambition?

This is the first time that CERN has put (into its medium-term) a budget line for medical applications. It is a small budget line but can be the seed for important projects. Over the last years, many medical activities have been going on at CERN; however these efforts were not focused. There are several activities related to CERN’s technologies including the design of specialized accelerators for cancer therapy, the conversion of the Low Energy Ion Ring (LEIR) into a biomedical facility, radio-isotope production using ISOLDE, medical imaging and applications to improve dosimetry for patients and finally large scale computing applications. The DG thought that the time had come to put these projects under one umbrella and asked me to be the coordinator.

I want to set a common goal and try to coordinate these efforts. One of my first aims is to transform the Low Energy Ion Ring (LEIR) into a biomedical facility. The new ring will be used to test cells and tissues with different types of ions, from protons to carbon ions, and in turn will allow controlled experiments on their radio-biological effects.

The extracted beams from bio-LEIR will also be used for testing new detectors. We are planning to test various combinations of imaging devices as well as the combination of diagnostics with different types of light ions. I believe that it is going to be a long-lasting programme with a horizon of five or six years.

Regarding the second part of your question, I would say that one of our future ambitions is to design a small compact hadron accelerator for cancer therapy. It should be small and cost effective, so that teaching hospitals could install and afford to operate it. In particular, it should be a stand-alone device, like an x-ray machine. To achieve this goal, we need input from oncologists and doctors. The doctors should give input on the type of ions that should be used as well as the beam specifications. For this reason we are going to have a first brainstorming meeting in February next year in order to get input from the radiobiologists, the radio-oncologists, and from the medical clinicians.

What challenges are involved in structuring this new project?

A very large number of people have already expressed their interest. They are coming not only from CERN member states, but almost from many other countries associated with CERN: USA, Canada, Australia, Japan, Korea to name but a few. As we cannot include all of them we need to think of some way to have as many as possible represented in this project.

Another important issue is that there is already a very intense research activities in many of these topics and many plans are already moving in the fast track. This is an issue that we have to take into account in our research. I think that in order to succeed we need to form an international advisory panel with a limited number of people, perhaps 15 or 20, and discuss this issue. Personally I find this as one of the most challenging problems; how can you coordinate something that until now has been “free running?”

Was there a moment of hesitation before taking up this role?

In the beginning I had no hesitation, but when such a large number of people and organizations started expressing their interest and requesting details, I started somehow to worry. Having run the LHC for five years I thought that this job would be easier but this hasn’t been the case. In fact, I believe that it is going to be more stressful.

What lessons have you drawn from your experience at LEP and the LHC?

Based on my experience at the LHC and LEP, if you get enough very smart and dedicated people around the table, you can solve nearly any problem. There is an expression in English saying that two heads are better that one; in that sense surely 45 heads are better than two. You need to have all of the specialists around the same table with someone to orchestrate the discussion. We will have a first brainstorming meeting with about a hundred people attending in February 2014.

What is the role of the PH department in this project?

The PH department is responsible for all the detectors at CERN. The detectors are large scale versions of what we need for biomedical applications. I hope to receive a lot of help from the PH physicists. Their experience on detectors both from the LHC and from simulations can steer us in the right direction. In fact, all our efforts will somehow depend on that.

What are the opportunities that a field like life sciences presents for CERN, an organization specializing in particle physics?

CERN should not lose its primary objective, which is to study particle physics. However, when we address the general public or the media and are asked what is the benefit of CERN to the “man in the street”, we can honestly answer that CERN has invented the World Wide Web, it has been a key-player in developing the GRID and that we have developed applications of our technologies to sustainable energy, climate control and medical applications. However, we must continuously emphasize the importance of fundamental physics and not forget that the technological spin-offs are not the primary reason why we do what we are doing.