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Specialist in radiophysics of the Proton Therapy Unit of the Navarra University Clinic | Diego Azcona: “That your work benefits people is very gratifying”

How does a physicist get to medicine?

-In the last years of my degree, I was very attracted to the idea of ​​dedicating myself to physics with a more humane, more applied side. At that time, the idea of ​​the medical physicist or radiophysicist, which is what they are called now, became popular. Shortly after finishing I started working at the CUN, in 1996, and I have been here for 26 years.

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In those 26 years, medicine has advanced a lot, especially thanks to the work of technology.

I have seen how much technology has changed in this field. Before we used much simpler systems, we treated tumors but they were much more toxic.

Proton therapy is a good example of that medicine of the future that is personalized medicine.

-Yes. In radiotherapy in general and specifically in proton therapy, treatments are highly personalized.

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Coming from a perhaps more theoretical field, what is it like to see your work improve people’s lives?

-It’s very rewarding. Doctors and physicists have very different points of view. The doctor wants a solution for a problem and the physicist is very motivated by the challenge, the problem per se. In a specialty like this, we physicists can combine something that is intellectually challenging, that you can face, and that has a benefit in people’s lives.

What is left to develop?

–With proton therapy we have taken a giant leap compared to the previous one, and hopefully more patients can benefit from having more equipment in public health. The next step may be to move on to other types of particles such as helium or carbon ions, which have an advantage over the proton. It would be a more noticeable biological effect. A proton does not see the cellular structure and the impact is at the atomic level, so the proton produces one or two breaks in DNA chains and that produces cell death. In this sense, the proton is biologically more effective than the photon, which does not concentrate the ionizations as well. With other particles, this biological effectiveness could increase, although many studies are lacking and it is still being investigated.

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