Zapping Cost of Cancer Treatment Using Laser-Driven Ion Accelerators and GPU Computing

by Samantha Zee

Radiation therapies with ion beams can precisely target cancerous tumors, while leaving surrounding healthy tissue unharmed.

Such targeted therapy leads to less invasive surgery, shorter hospital stays and speedier recovery times.

The drawback is that conventional ion accelerators tend to be huge in both size and cost. This puts them beyond the budget for most medical facilities.

Researchers are using powerful GPU clusters to develop new code and simulations, with the ultimate goal of creating high-powered, laser-driven ion accelerators that are compact and less expensive.

Michael Bussmann, who leads a research group in computational radiation physics at Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf in Dresden, Germany, is driving these efforts with GPU computing. He described the work done by the group at the GPU Technology Conference last month.

Creating live simulations and adding physical phenomena to code was once considered impossible. Now, with the parallel processing power of GPUs, it’s achievable.

When assessing electrons, each individual particle can be followed and its contribution to the overall radiation emitted from laser-driven plasma can be calculated, Bussman said.

To bring laser acceleration of ions to applications requires realistic simulations. PIConGPU code, a school project that turned into a research lab-run project, is one way to get it done.

Operating on a cluster of GPUs, the particle-in-cell on a GPU, or PIConGPU, has become one of the most widely used algorithms in computational plasma physics because it opens up a new understanding of laser-matter interactions.

Using GPUs also offers more computational power, faster processing times and cuts the time needed for coding. A simulation that once took a week can now be completed in a matter of hours.

New high-power lasers are being built with PIConGPU, including the petawatt-laser Penelope, currently under construction at Helmholtz-Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf.

“We’ll have codes to better estimate how the laser will work, because with treatments, it’s never just one shot,” Bussmann said. “We want to find more ways to treat cancer. There are many therapies, and lasers mean you can provide treatment from all different points.”

Eventually, researchers hope to use Penelope to estimate the exact dose of treatment given to a patient.