Jean-Philippe Pignol

‘Destroying tumour cells with nanoparticles’



Jean-Philippe Pignol is a specialist in radiation oncology with a PhD in nuclear physics. In 2000, he joined the University of Toronto and became a full professor in 2008 of the Departments of Radiation Oncology, Medical Biophysics and at the Institute of Medical Sciences. Since August 2014, he has been Professor and Chair of the department of Radiation Oncology at Erasmus MC Cancer Institute in Rotterdam, with a co-appointment at TU Delft.


Erasmus MC: Radiotherapy
TU Delft: Applied Physics

Simple, fast, painless

“Thanks to early detection techniques such as mammography, colonoscopy and PSA screening, cancer is being diagnosed at earlier stages than ever before and we’ve seen real progress in cancer treatments. I specialise in breast cancer, and sixty per cent of women who get breast cancer are diagnosed at an early stage, which means that the cancer is still confined to the breast and has not spread to the lymph nodes in the armpit or to other organs. The current standard treatment is to remove the lump, and give radiation treatment to treat any microscopic cancer cells that remain in the breast to prevent recurrence. Normally, radiation treatments are administered five days a week over several weeks. This is highly disruptive to the patient’s normal life, and the treatment itself has painful side effects. The aim of our research is to develop a treatment that is simple, efficient, fast, painless, and that preserves the breast with the best cosmetic outcome possible.”

Radioactive seeds

“For about 30 years, men with prostate cancer have been treated using a special technique in which radioactive seeds are inserted into the tumour in a single, one-time procedure. The procedure takes only around an hour to complete, and the radiation treatment is slowly released while the patient is at home or at work as normal. I have developed the same technique for women with breast cancer to take place after the lumpectomy, which is a limited surgical procedure to remove the bulk of the tumour. With PBSI (Permanent Breast Seed Implant), we insert radioactive seeds the size of a grain of rice into the breast. The results are really good. It’s better and safer than any other technique to date and there are practically no side effects. This procedure also takes around an hour and after that the patient can go home and lead a normal life.”

And then we heat them...

“Now, the plan is to take the same idea but with nanoparticles of approximately thirty nanometres, which will consist of a radioactive core within a shell of highly magnetic metal. This shell makes it possible to see the nanoparticles using magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. So we can see in real time where the radiation goes, and which direction it is moving in. In addition, the magnetic shell enables us to use oscillating magnetic fields to produce heat for cancer ablation. Within a couple of weeks, once the radioactivity has been fully released, the nanoparticles become inactive and disappear.”

Best of both worlds

“Thanks to Medical Delta, I am now working with Antonia Denkova and Kristina Djanashvili from TU Delft to develop the nanoparticles. At Erasmus MC, Prof. Gerard van Rhoon and I are also working with the University of Eindhoven to optimise a technique using heated radio frequencies to destroy tumour tissue. This research is being supported by Elekta – a major player in the field of radiotherapy. Elekta is interested because it believes that this is the future of brachytherapy.”

“For me, working in the Netherlands is really wonderful. We have a combination of the best of North America and the best of Europe. In the US, people are very good at making things happen. And so are Dutch people, who created a whole country out of the sea bed! But here you also find more refined European values, like good cooperation and a clear sense of the big picture. After eighteen months here, I am truly amazed how bright and open-minded the researchers at Erasmus, Delft and Leiden are! Medical Delta also attracts big companies that trust the quality of the work done here – it really is a mark of quality when you say something was done in the Netherlands.”

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