The Quantum in Cancer

Quantum technologies to treat it; quantum physics to create it?

An ambitious agreement: Tokyo, December 13th, 2016

The agreement is signed, five organisations join forces. Equipped with accelerating lasers and deflecting, superconducting magnets, they will develop a Quantum Scalpel. Their ambition is zero cancer deaths, says Toshio Hirano, chief of the National Institutes for Quantum and Radiological Science and Technology (QST) in Japan. Using the same star-building tools as nuclear fusion, QST aims to bring quantum technology to the forefront of contributions to human society.

Unlike a surgeon’s scalpel, the Quantum Scalpel attacks tumours without cutting skin, using heavy ions fired through the body. In contrast to radiotherapy’s Gamma and X-Rays, charged particles, such as protons, release most of their energy upon reaching the target tumour. This reduces non-targeted damage and harmful side-effects.

Proton Beam Therapy centres are increasingly common, but far more effective are their heavyweight cousins, carbon ions. Three times as damaging as X-Rays, carbon ions’ double-strand DNA breaking ability leaves cancerous cells beyond repair. More massive ions, like Oxygen, could even battle the most radiation resistant tumours.

Sounds great, but heavier particles are harder to move. Deflecting carbon atoms with magnetic fields is much harder than guiding protons, and requires huge, expensive, 670-ton accelerators, some of which are over 100m in length. Hence, just eight centres worldwide offer carbon ion treatment.

Ideally, a compact machine with several different ion types, each with varied properties, could attack all forms of cancer in a single treatment. With help from Toshiba, Mistubishi, Hitachi and Sumitomo, QST aims to drastically reduce the technology’s cost and size, so it can be practically distributed to hospitals worldwide.

Is quantum physics in your DNA?

Flashback to Starbucks in the late 90s, a physicist and biologist sit chatting. Radical ideas splash the coffee. The DNA molecule’s rungs are hydrogen bonds; perhaps DNA mutates when a hydrogen atom tunnels to the wrong side of the molecule. This atom can be in a superposition of states, giving a mutated and non-mutated molecule.

A glamorous thought, but no tea stained napkin scribbled with equations explaining mutations emerges. They drop their controversial conversations and return to nuclear science and diagnosing meningitis. After all, quantum effects are delicate, only observable in tightly controlled, supercooled conditions, how could molecules bustling around at room temperature ever exhibit them?

Yet, recent advancements in photosynthesis and bird migration have led to Jim Al Khalili and Johnjoe McFadden awakening an interest in quantum biology. They returned to that Starbucks theory of quantum effects underlying mutations, and are developing experiments to test it. If correct, a new understanding of how cancerous mutations occur could be revealed, though the theory could take years to verify.

Perhaps the quantum technology for cancer’s destruction lies in the quantum biology of cancer’s creation. Understanding how nature harnesses quantum effects at room temperature could improve the Quantum Scalpel; cancer’s mechanisms may indirectly provide its cure.