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14 July 2004

University of Heidelberg Successful in German Academic Exchange Service Competition

New summer school on radiation therapy at the Heidelberg Latin America Centre in Santiago de Chile

Ionising radiation has long been an indispensable factor in the medical field, be it in X-ray diagnostics, nuclear medicine, X-ray computed tomography, magnetic resonance tomography or radiation therapy. But all these diagnostic and therapeutic approaches require very careful handling to ensure that patients and staff are protected from unwanted effects of radiation. While circumspect use of nuclear material can help cure diseases, inappropriate handling can cause major "collateral" damage. Accordingly, the employment of ionising radiation on humans is subject to strict guidelines geared to the European directives on the subject.

In western countries the responsibility for radiological exploration and treatment lies with specially trained medical physicists. But in Chile and other countries of Latin America professional specialisation of this kind does not exist as yet. Here the tasks are assumed by physicians or technical assistants and the constantly increasing complexity of the technology involved frequently overtaxes their skills. This means that there is no corresponding guarantee of safe application: the side-effects involved spell danger for the patients both at the diagnostic and the therapeutic stage. In addition, there is an absence of research projects and developments in medical physics of the kind that have long since been customary in the west.

But thanks to an initiative on the part of the Heidelberg Centre in Santiago de Chile this deficiency may soon be a thing of the past. In November of this year a "Summer School in Medical Radiation Physics" is being organised by the Heidelberg Centre to teach the fundamentals of radiation physics, radiation protection and medical physics in the fields of radiological diagnostics (including X-ray diagnostics, X-ray computed tomography and magnetic resonance), nuclear medicine (diagnostics and therapy) and radiation therapy using ionising radiation (brachytherapy and teletherapy).

In addition, the course discusses the present state of research and technology in modern research areas associated with medical radiation physics. These ambitious aims were recently acknowledged by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), which presented the project with an award in the framework of its "Summer Schools Abroad" competition and is shouldering the costs for the enterprise. With its 80 hours of instruction, the comprehensive course corresponds in scope and content to the training prescribed for experts in medical physics in Germany. In terms of teaching content and teaching goals the course is also closely geared to the recommendations of the European Federation of Organisations for Medical Physics (EFOMP) with regard to the training of medical physics experts.

"In fact this course is the second of its kind," explains Dr. Walter Eckel, director of the Heidelberg Centre for Latin America. "We made an excellent start last year when Professor Schlegel, head of the Department of Medical Physics at the German Cancer Research Centre, gave a seminar on radiation therapy." Some 50 participants attended the seminar, clearly showing the need for courses of this kind. "We expect the new course to attract a similar number of participants and see it as a response to this obvious need."

The organisation of the project is in the hands of the Heidelberg Latin America Centre (Santiago de Chile) founded in 2001 by the University of Heidelberg with financial support from the state of Baden-Württemberg. This one and only postgraduate centre maintained abroad by a German university provides the platform for the course, which also involves the Faculties of Physics and Medicine of the Pontificia Universidad Católica and the Universidad de Chile and (on the German side) the Department of Radiation Therapy of the Heidelberg University Hospital Complex and the Department of Medical Physics at the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ).

This coming November, Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schlegel will accordingly be travelling to Chile with seven members of his department staff to run the course in collaboration with two staff members from the Heidelberg University Hospitals Complex and Professor da Silva, the leading Brazilian radiologist. "In Chile radiation therapy is still very much in the teething stage," says the project leader of the Summer School in Medical Radiation Physics. "The physicians and the staff involved quite rightly feel rather neglected. There is an enormous amount of ground to catch up on, particularly in connection with the safety issues posed by radiation therapy." Incidentally, the name of the course is entirely appropriate. In Chile the month of November is in the middle of early summer, so the Heidelberg scientists can look forward to pleasant temperatures of about 25°.

Calling the project "exportation of knowledge" does not entirely do justice to the scope of the whole thing. At an international level, medical physics in Heidelberg is outstandingly well placed, while the research being done at the German Cancer Research Centre can truly be said to be at the cutting edge. German hopes associated with this project are centred on the eventuality of finding highly suited Chilean scientists interested in doing a doctorate in medical physics and embarking on a scientific career in Germany. At the same time, the joint efforts on the part of the University of Heidelberg and the Cancer Research Centre are indicative of the benefits that can accrue from scientific networking of this kind.

"This link between internal and extramural institutions is one of the biggest assets Heidelberg has," Dr. Eckel emphasises. "In this way we can export teaching without the teaching at home being short-changed." At the same time Walter Eckel has his eye on future projects. "In the medium term we are doing everything we can to establish a fully equivalent Masters course in medical physics in Chile. This would not only be a valuable addition to the existing curriculum, it would also help close one of the major gaps in the Latin American health system."
Heiko P. Wacker

Please address any inquiries to
Dr. Walter Eckel
Heidelberg Latin America Centre
Avda. Los Leones 1035
Providencia, Santiago de Chile,
phone: +56-(0)2-2343466, fax: +56-(0)2-2343781

Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317

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