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IAEA Installs New Radiotherapy Equipment to Help Countries Fight Cancer


The medical linear accelerator is being installed at the IAEA's Seibersdorf laboratories. (Photo: F. Walugembe/IAEA)

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has received a new medical linear accelerator and the equipment used for radiotherapy is being installed at its Seibersdorf laboratories. It will greatly enhance the Agency’s capacity to support the application of this technology to the benefit of cancer patients around the world.

The new linear accelerator, linac for short, has been provided to the IAEA under a partnership with Varian Medical Systems. Under the partnership agreement, the manufacturer is making the linear accelerator available to the IAEA at no cost for a period of 10 years. The United States Department of Energy has provided a USD 1,250,000 grant to cover maintenance costs for the first five years. 

“We look forward to beginning operations in the coming months, significantly expanding the services we offer to Member States,” IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said at the opening of the Agency’s Board of Governors meeting this week, adding that installation of the linear accelerator started last month. The equipment is worth around Euro 2.8 million, and the loan from the manufacturer represents the largest IAEA partnership with the private sector to date.

The use of medical linear accelerators in the management of cancer has been growing rapidly. According to the IAEA’s Directory of Radiotherapy Centres (DIRAC), there are at least 12,000 such machines in operation in hospitals worldwide. For many years, machines using radioactive cobalt-60 sources were predominantly used to administer critical radiotherapy treatment. In the last decades, however, health care providers have increasingly switched to linear accelerator technology, as this offer more versatility in the delivery of radiation doses to target tumours. Since the radiation is generated with electricity, it also avoids safety and security concerns that accompany the management of radiation sources, although it relies on a steady supply of electricity.  

The linear accelerator will be housed in the Dosimetry Laboratory, which is one of eight IAEA Nuclear Applications laboratories in Seibersdorf, Austria. Dosimetry was one of the first laboratories established by the Agency at its Seibersdorf complex in 1962. The Laboratory offers audits to hospitals worldwide to ensure radiotherapy equipment is well calibrated for effective cancer treatment. Small dosimeters are sent to participating hospitals and irradiated, and the dose is then evaluated by the IAEA Dosimetry Laboratory for accuracy. Differences as small as 5 per cent from the intended radiation dose can significantly affect the outcome of therapy. These audits have been operated through an IAEA and World Health Organization network since 1969.  

Between 2015 and 2018, linear accelerator beams accounted for approximately 85 per cent of all audits carried out at the IAEA Dosimetry Laboratory. “The new linac will allow us to provide a broader range of dosimetry services corresponding to the current technology level at radiotherapy centres, including low- and middle-income countries,” said Joanna Izewska, Head of the Dosimetry Laboratory. “It will also enable us to offer more training opportunities, and to carry out advanced research in medical radiation physics.”

Cancer is one of the leading causes of mortality worldwide, and in 2018 alone was responsible for 9.6 million deaths. Radiotherapy – whether through linear accelerators or cobalt-60 machines – use high energy radiation to kill tumour cells and is a key component in the treatment of the disease. The IAEA supports national governments in using nuclear science and technology to better diagnose, treat and manage cancer.

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