The Proton Therapy Center at Institut Curie: a remarkable story

Céline Giustranti
Institut Curie is a worldwide pioneer in proton therapy. This equipment, installed at the Orsay site, is one of two sets in France – the other one is in Nice – to offer this form of ultra-precise radiotherapy.

A unique place with a unique history

The history of the Proton Therapy Center is rooted in the construction of the first French cyclotron,* undertaken in 1937 by Frédéric Joliot-Curie when he arrived at the Collège de France.

In the 1950s, to provide modern resources to the nuclear physics laboratories at the Faculté des Sciences in Paris, a center was built on the Orsay site, initiated by Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie. And thus the Nuclear Physics and Chemistry laboratory at the Collège de France was transferred there with most of its facilities, including the famous cyclotron.

Since the cyclotron had become somewhat obsolete, the laboratory acquired a synchrocyclotron* with 160 MeV (mega electron-volts) in 1958.

This particle accelerator, which had become unusable in modern nuclear physics, which was now accustomed to more powerful machines, was converted between 1989 and 1991 to be used for medical purposes. An inter-hospital union, encompassing the Assistance-Publique des Hôpitaux de Paris (AP-HP), the René Huguenin center, the Gustave Roussy center and Institut Curie, was created to manage the Proton Therapy Center.

In 2004 the Proton Therapy Center became an integral part of Institut Curie, which launched a large-scale renovation project. It opened again in 2010, equipped with a new-generation proton accelerator (230 MeV) and a new treatment room with an isocentric arm, in addition to the two existing rooms with a fixed beam. The isocentric arm guides the beam around the patient to treat new indications hitherto inaccessible, in particular in children.

In March 2017, a new milestone was reached with the treatment of the first patient using the pencil beam scanning (PBS) technique. This new technology scans the tumor with the proton beam and thus treats tumors with complex volumes. The types of tumor that can benefit from proton therapy will thus be extended, allowing more patients to be treated using this high-precision radiotherapy.


*Cyclotron: circular accelerator invented by Ernest Orlando Lawrence in 1931. In a cyclotron, the particles placed in a magnetic field follow a spiral trajectory and are accelerated by an alternative electric field with energy from a few MeV to around 30 MeV.

*Synchrocyclotron: a type of circular accelerator; a more recent invention than the cyclotron that achieves higher energy of a few million MeV, or TeV.