VITA from Siberia

by Evgeniia Sokolova.

Greetings to every reader!
I am a Ph.D. student from the Novosibirsk State University, doing research in the Budker Institute, located in the middle of Siberia – the region in Russia. Recently you may have heard about me, as I was one of the winners of the Fairchild Award this year. Now I have an opportunity to be the author of the article for the Newsletter. I will tell you about BNCT in Novosibirsk, people who promote and develop it and what it became now.
I visited the Budker Institute for the first time when I was in secondary school. Then I could not even think that in the future this would become my place of work. However, already at that time, the VITA-facility where physicists fight against malignant tumors, literally by a nuclear explosion right inside the cancer cell, made a strong impression.
The history of BNCT in Russia began in the late 1990s. A group of enthusiasts from the Budker institute, including my scientific advisor Prof. Sergey Taskaev, came up with the idea of implementing the accelerator based BNCT technique. Those researchers did not look for easy ways, but tried to implement the best decisions for AB BNCT. «If the lithium target is the best then it has to be created, if there is no suitable accelerator with low energy and high current then it has to be invented,» – Sergey Taskaev said. Thus, in 2008 the first neutrons were obtained. This is how the VITA device appeared – an epithermal neutron source consisting of a vacuum-insulated tandem accelerator (VITA) and a solid lithium target.
When I joined the VITA team in 2014 I was immediately involved in experiments. The VITA team thoroughly approached the study of the lithium target, dosimetry issues and the improvement of the proton beam. Thus, in 2015 a proton current of 5 mA was obtained, in 2018 the current reached 10 mA.
One of the most noticeable collaborations took place in 2017. Together with researchers from Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (Japan), we carried out experimental studies of blistering. In real time we observed the birth of blisters on the copper substrate. The blistering studies were very important and fundamental, they changed the paradigm and provided us with knowledge for two PhD theses. One of them is mine. Now we can responsibly claim that we have improved our lithium target to the ideal, thus, all the necessary parameters for conducting BNCT have been achieved.

Prof. Yasuo Higashi (OIST) and VITA team are preparing the blistering studies.

The next step was to prove that the VITA neutron beam is effective for performing BNCT. With the help of Japanese colleagues from the University of Tsukuba and local biologists, a series of experiments on irradiation of cell cultures and mice were carried out. In the end, we got a result when the survival rate of healthy cells fell by only 5%, and cancer cells with accumulated boron – by 98%!

Dr. Aleksandr Kichigin, Ivan Shchudlo and Prof. Sergey Taskaev are preparing an experiment with cell cultures.
Prof. Kei Nakai, Dr. Alexander Zaboronok from University of Tsukuba (Japan) and Prof. Sergey Taskaev are discussing the plan of experiments.

We can safely say that all the technical characteristics of VITA are sufficient for therapy. Now we regularly conduct BNCT irradiations and provide assistance in testing of new drugs for targeted delivery of boron. We even moved from words to action and at the end of 2019 started treating veterinary patients with spontaneous cancer tumors. For the current moment BNCT was conducted for 13 animals with various types of tumour. Only those animals for which other methods of treatment were ineffective were admitted to the therapy. For every veterinary patient CT or MRI was performed before and after treatment to evaluate the tumor response to the therapy. After the treatment the condition of veterinary patients was monitored weekly for 3-6 months. In all cases no tumor growth was detected, in some cases the tumour size decreased and some animals were treated twice. BNCT extended the expected survival and improved the quality of life of all veterinary patients.

Kapa and me. Veterinary patient Kapa is getting ready for the therapy in the Budker Institute.

VITA in clinics

VITA has already become a prototype for commercial projects. The first was constructed for Xiamen Humanity Hospital BNCT Center (China). It is expected that clinical trials will begin soon. The second will be constructed for the National Center for Oncological Hadrontherapy in Pavia (Italy). The third will be constructed for the National Medical Research Center of Oncology in Moscow (Russia).

Specialists from TAE Life Sciences and Neuboron Medtech together with specialists from the Budker Institute in Novosibirsk

Who’s after us?

BNCT education in Novosibirsk New specialists are always needed for BNCT development. Since 2018 Novosibirsk State University has launched a new master’s program – Nuclear medicine. NSU trains specialists in radiotherapy and researchers working on the development of existing and creating new medical technologies for nuclear medicine. A unique feature of this master’s program is the internship at the operating neutron source for BNCT – VITA.
PhD program
Our facility is always ready to provide a platform and resources not only for outstanding researchers, but also for young scientists from all over the world. So, in cooperation with the Budker Institute young scientists from Algeria and Japan have already completed their research: in 2018, based on the results of their research under the scientific guidance of Prof. Matsumura, Eisuke Sato from the University of Tsukuba (Japan) defended a Ph.D. thesis: “Radiobiological evaluation of the effectiveness of boron neutron capture therapy on a tandem-type proton accelerator with a solid lithium target”. Lilia Zaidi from the University of Science and Technology Houari Boumediène (Algeria) defended a Ph.D. thesis in 2018 under the scientific guidance of Prof. Belgaid, her theme is “Beam shaping assembly optimization for boron Neutron Capture Therapy (BNCT)”. Now in the BNCT team in Budker institute there are two foreign Ph.D. students: Byambatseren Enkhtsetseg from Mongolia and Ibrahem Ibrahem from Syria.
The regular BNCT team at the Budker Institute mainly consists of young specialists: physicists, medical doctors, chemists and biologists, many of them have successfully defended their Ph.D. theses based on the results of the research at the facility.

Beyond BNCT

VITA is a unique facility, since it can be used for various tasks that go out of the frame of BNCT. Accelerator allows the production of cold, thermal, epithermal, monoenergetic and fast neutrons.
VITA is also used for the needs of large international scientific complexes of the mega-science class. For example, fast neutrons obtained at VITA are used for the needs of the Large Hadron Collider. After upgrading the LHC to a high luminosity mode, harsh radiation conditions are expected for the operation of a compact muon solenoid (CMS) detector. Thus, from 10th January 2022 we are going to carry out long-term radiation testing of optic fibers made specifically for the modification of the laser calorimeter calibration system of CMS. 
The VITA facility was used to test ceramics specially manufactured for neutron protection of equipment in the ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor in Cadarache, France) diagnostic ports and to reduce the radiation dose for operating staff. We have measured the activation of the ceramic samples after irradiation by neutrons. The possibility of using sintered and hot-pressed boron carbide ceramics in the ITER diagnostic ports is shown.
Recently, we have succeeded in obtaining and detecting cold neutrons. Cold neutrons are supposed to be used for neutron diffraction, or to deliver them directly to the tumor via the neutron guide.
A fundamental result was the recent measurement of the cross section 7Li(p,p’γ)7Li reaction in a wide range of proton energies. The accuracy and reliability of our measurement are such that our results should soon become a standard and update the experimental database of nuclear reactions. This result has opened the new field of work for our facility to verify and measure cross sections for reactions of protons or deuterons with various materials. 

RuBNCT Conference 

Since 2019, the All-Russian Conference and School of Young Scientists on BNCT (RuBNCT) have been held annually in Novosibirsk. Despite that the conference is all-Russian, I had a chance to attend the lectures of such international experts of BNCT as Prof. Wolfgang Sauerwein, Prof. Hiroyuki Nakamura, Prof. Shin-Ichi Miyatake and others who have visited our conference. Please refer to Newsletter #1 for more details.

International experts of BNCT at the VITA facility: Andres Kreiner, Sergey Taskaev, Wolfgang Sauerwein, Saverio Altieri and Tooru Kobayashi with their beautiful wives.

Unfortunately, in 2020 and 2021, the conferences were partially online, but they were still extremely exciting and had a large number of participants. 
We really hope to see everyone soon in 2022 and invite everybody to Novosibirsk, where for the first time in Russia the 11th YBNCT will be held from 11 to 13 July.

VITA for life and research

VITA is not only a source of neutrons, but also a source of a comparable flux of gamma and alpha radiation. The feature of the facility is that it is not a stand alone device, but it is operating in the research institute, which is located in the scientific center of Novosibirsk, where chemical, biological and medical research institutes are literally within walking distance.
Thus, VITA is multifunctional, equipped with various diagnostics, serviced by highly qualified staff and is ready to provide a platform for any collaboration. You are welcome!

*Special thanks for shooting photos to Dr. Aleksandr Makarov
**All operations with animals were approved by local Ethics Committee