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New ERC grant at the Applied Optics Lab of l’X

École Polytechnique Applied Optics Lab received a new grant from the European Research Council. The team, led by Victor Malka, was distinguished for its work on the development of innovative technologies for cancer detection at an early stage.

Victor Malka, Research Director at the Laboratoire d’Optique Appliquée (LOA) - joint research facility between ENSTA ParisTech, CNRS and École Polytechnique - and his team, just received one of the prestigious grants of the European Research Council (ERC): the "Proof of Concept" ERC grant. This grant vise will be used for research work on the development of innovative technologies for cancer detection at an early stage.

Interview with Victor Malka, CNRS Research Director at the Laboratoire d’Optique Appliquée (LOA), and professor at École polytechnique.

>Can you tell us more about your work on laser-plasma accelerators?
The interaction of a laser pulse of high intensity and a gas produces a plasma. If controlled, this plasma can be used to speed particles in a very compact and effective way. This new accelerator concept, invented 30 years ago, has become a reality in laboratories.
The research conducted in recent years have enabled us to obtain electron beams with unique properties. Very energetic, extremely bright and tunable in energy, these beams open new opportunities for radiotherapy and medical imaging. The laser-plasma accelerators are very interesting for medical imaging because they can produce beams of coherent and small X-rays, essential for obtaining images of medical interest with unprecedented spatial resolution.
Our current research focuses on new approaches to control electric fields, the idea being to oscillate the accelerated electrons and to make them emit energy radiation in the X-ray field by doing so.

>You work on a technique called "imaging by phase contrast": what will it change?
It is crucial to detect cancer as early as possible to treat it quickly and efficiently, before it develops. To detect cancerous tumors, there exists two types of imaging in the field of X-rays: imaging by absorption and imaging by phase contrast.
The imaging by absorption is the traditional method using the tissue absorption properties. In particular, it allows to view bone tissue, its density being different from those of the surrounding tissues. However, it is not possible to distinguish cancer cells from others with this technique, since they have very similar densities.
Imaging by phase contrast requires a spatially coherent source. The image contrast can be significantly increased, especially for biological soft tissue. The properties of our X-ray sources allow to obtain resolutions of a few micrometers, ie, ten to one hundred times thinner than a human hair.
The dimension of the source being very small, this technique enables the detection of cancerous tumors at a very early stage. Applied to the case of breast cancer, imaging by phase contrast could allow very early detection with a minimal dose.
In the Laboratoire d’Optique Appliquée, we are working on this technique. For now, imaging by phase contrast for the detection of cancer is the focus of intense investigation but it is not yet used clinically.

> How are you going to use this ERC grant?
We are working on optimizing our imaging by phase contrast technique.
With current techniques of medical imaging, it is not possible to prevent the patient moves, even very slightly. Because of this movement, the image is blurred. By improving the technique with imaging by phase contrast, our goal is to produce a medical snapshot that will not be blurred by movement. The ERC grant will allow us to fund this work. With the spin-off SourceLAB, we will also study the industrial relevance of this approach.

> What does this grant represent for you and your lab?
This grant rewards our team work: several PhD students, postdocs and researchers, all extremely bright and motivated, are involved in this project. It is also the continuity of the research we begun about ten years ago at the lab. With this eighteen months grant, we will set up various innovative techniques for the detection of cancers, all based on laser-plasma technology, including for breast cancer. Hopefully, we will be able to apply those new technologies in the years to come. Ultimately, the goal is to set up experimental facilities dedicated to medical applications within the lab, where imaging and treatment will be studied jointly. This grant complements others, among which an ERC Advanced Grant, that financed more fundamental research, and they allow a virtuous transition from the basic concept to its social application.