Breakthroughs

Why a nuclear fusion company is lasering in on cancer

TAE Technologies' nuclear fusion reactor technology.
TAE Technologies' nuclear fusion reactor technology.

Technology developed to try to crack the code of nuclear fusion — that elusive type of nuclear energy that powers the sun — is now being repurposed to kill cancer.

The unusual move comes from TAE Technologies, a company that has been working on fusion technology for close to two decades and which has raised $500 million from investors such as Goldman Sachs, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Silicon Valley venture firm NEA. The company was previously calling itself Tri Alpa Energy.

TAE Technologies announced on Monday that it’s created a new startup, a majority-owned subsidiary called TAE Life Sciences, which has raised its own $40 million to develop a technology to treat cancer. The new company, backed by Artis Ventures, said it’s selling its first treatment machine to Chinese company Neuboron Medtech.

The strategy to take an innovation that was developed for one application and use it for a different application, isn’t new, of course. But the technique of finding more immediate ways to commercialize a technology that’s possibly decades in the making could prove crucial for a daunting market such as nuclear fusion.

The process also could provide valuable lessons for other markets with long timelines, large capital needs and high risks such as drug development, manufacturing a new battery chemistry, or even nuclear fission technology.

TAE Technologies president and CTO Michl Binderbauer described the cancer application and spinout as "changing the game" for the nuclear fusion company. "This is our first revenue, if you will. It hedges the bet a little bit," explained Binderbauer.

The nuclear energy technology used in today’s nuclear reactors in countries around the world is nuclear fission. It splits atoms apart to generate energy.

In contrast nuclear fusion technology smashes atomic nuclei together to create energy. There aren’t any commercialized nuclear fusion reactors operating, and no one has been able to develop a reactor that produces more energy than is required to kickstart the fusion reaction.

Most nuclear fusion reactors under development are based on a donut-shaped design called the tokamak. One of the most famous ones is being built by the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor project (ITER), which is many years behind schedule and billions of dollars over its initial budget.

TAE Technologies has a novel nuclear fusion reactor design that operates a bit like a particle accelerator. It shoots beams of plasma into a vessel where it’s held in place by a magnetic field.  

It’s the beam technology that controls the plasma in the nuclear reactor which TAE Technologies has used as the core of the new cancer treatment machine. The medical technology, under development for two years, has been tuned to make a beam of protons which in turn make neutrons.

The neutron beam is aimed at the cancer patient’s tumors for about 30 minutes, and is combined with a boron-based substance that is injected into the patient intravenously and accumulates in the cancer cells. A nuclear reaction takes place when the boron is hit by the neutron beam, and this can kill cancer cells in a very targeted way.

Researchers around the world have been trying to develop this process, what’s called Boron Neutron Capture Therapy (BNCT), for decades. But the problem has been that the doctor and patient have needed to use a nuclear reactor to do it.

"Neutrons need to be sourced from somewhere," noted Binderbauer.

Despite the high barrier, some experimental BNCT has shown some successful results in patients with tumors of the head and neck. These tumors need highly targeted treatments. 

TAE Technologies spinoff TAE Life Sciences is trying to make Boron Neutron Capture Therapy more accessible. "We’re looking to democratize this amazing treatment," said Binderbauer. 

China, in particular, has seen a high rate of these difficult-to-treat head and neck cancers, thought to be related to air pollution and high rates of smoking.

While the new beam-based cancer treatment could be important for society and lucrative for investors, the newly formed startup could have important implications for its nuclear fusion parent company.

As the fusion technology creeps closer to commercialization, it will need a supply chain to lower the cost of its beam technology. The medical industry could provide one. 

The medical device market also could provide valuable lessons for how to commercialize the beam tech. "The learnings that happen in one, will feed back into the other," said Binderbauer.

The parent company also directly will benefit from sales of the cancer treatment machines. TAE Technologies has raised $500 million already, but it will need more money to take its reactor tech to the next level.

Then there’s the sharing of talent. Many researchers that have the qualifications to work on the beam tech for the cancer treatment come from the nuclear fusion parent. And vice versa.

TAE Life Sciences’ cancer treatment machines likely have a few years to go before they have a chance of being sold more widely. They need to go through clinical trials and gain approval from various governments. 

But that timescale has nothing on fusion, which has perpetually been "decades away" — for decades.

The cancer treatment is just the first spinoff that TAE Technologies plans to do using the intellectual property it's amassed. The nuclear fusion firm has several other products and markets in mind and plans to announce these in the coming months and years.