CERN Accelerating science

This website is no longer maintained. Its content may be obsolete. Please visit for current CERN information.

Home | Sitemap | Contact us
this site all CERN
Technicians in the PH Department's bond lab

Physics for health

by Rolf Heuer, Director General of CERN

First published in the CERN Bulletin, Feb 2010

Ever since pioneers like Rolf Wideröe and Ernest Lawrence built the first particle accelerators in the 1920s and 30s, particle physics has contributed to advances in medicine.

Today, over half of the world’s particle accelerators are used in medicine, and more and varied uses are being found for them all the time. The same is true for particle detector technology. In the 1970s, CERN played an important role in the emerging technology of positron emission tomography (PET), building prototype scanners in a collaboration with Geneva’s hospital. That tradition continues to this day, with crystal technology developed for LEP, coupled to electronics developed for the LHC, pointing the way to combined PET/MRI scanners.

It’s a proud track record by any standards, but we can do better. In the past, the transfer of knowledge and technology between the biomedical professions and physics has been sporadic: based on chance rather than strategy. That’s why CERN hosted a workshop on physics for health on 2-4 February 2010, and charged its participants with drafting a strategy that will ensure that the two communities work more closely together in the future.

That workshop was a great success, bringing together some 400 physicists, biologists and healthcare professionals from around the world. These included some of the early pioneers, such as David Townsend, who was a key player in the early days of PET, as well as people at the cutting edge of developments today.

The workshop set itself the goal of reviewing progress in the domain of physics applications in life sciences, stimulating exchanges between the different communities and indicating the subjects most suitable for further studies in diagnosis and therapy. The workshop explored synergies between physics and physics spin-offs to fight disease with a focus on radiobiology, accelerators, radioisotope production, detectors and use of IT. The strategy paper is still being deliberated, but I feel sure it will provide a sound blueprint for an ever closer partnership between physics and health.

Download: PHEE 2010 Executive Summary of Position Document (PDF)