If we need a huge particle accelerator to produce antimatter and use it only for exotic experiments, how are we ever going to ramp up production to the point where it becomes practical as a propulsion system? One answer may be that as we study the minute amounts of antimatter available for study today, we are learning how to use it in ways that are far more likely to catch the public eye, as in medicine. And treating cancer effectively — ask any patient — is anything but theoretical.
At CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research), the Antiproton Cell Experiment (ACE) has been running since 2003. It’s an attempt to look at antimatter’s effect on cancer cells, and its results are startling. Antiprotons, it turns out, are four times more effective than protons at destroying live cancer cells. Here’s CERN’s Michael Holzscheiter on the encouraging news:
“To achieve the same level of damage to cells at the target area one needs four times fewer antiprotons than protons. This significantly reduces the damage to the cells along the entrance channel of the beam for antiprotons compared to protons. Due to the antiproton’s unsurpassed ability to preserve healthy tissue while causing damage to a specific area, this type of beam could be highly valuable in treating cases of recurring cancer, where this property is vital.”
Antimatter annihilates when it meets normal matter. And in this case, an antiproton annihilating with part of the nucleus of an atom in a tumor cell produces desirable results that multiply. The released energy is effective at destroying nearby tumor cells as well, a ripple effect not available with more conventional particle beam therapy based solely on protons. We’re still talking about clinical applications that are a decade or so out, but giving antimatter a ‘real-world’ connection boosts society’s interest in its study and may result in higher funding levels for future work.