Radiation isn’t just for science fiction fans

We focus on using nuclear energy to generate power, but nuclear scientists are saving lives. Radioisotopes – chemical elements that produce radiation — are now a staple in our medical diagnostic and treatment tool bag.

In the 1930s, John and Ernest Lawrence ran experiments in what today is known as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. What they learned later resulted in the first application in patients of an artificial radionuclide used phosphorus-32 to treat leukemia.

Today, the uses of nuclear technology have broad applications in medicine. Radiotherapy has been used successfully for decades now in the treatment of many types of cancer. According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, nearly half of all cancer patients in the United States receive radiation treatment at some point in their therapy. For diagnostics, myocardial perfusion uses radioisotopes to map the flow of blood through the heart to understand heart disease. Bone scans can detect cancer much earlier than X-rays. Ever heard of a “CT Scan?” These marvelous machines use a radiation dose tailored to a specific exam type and provide detail images, virtually eliminating the need for many exploratory surgeries.

According to the World Nuclear Association, “Over 10,000 hospitals worldwide use radioisotopes in medicine, and about 90% of the procedures are for diagnosis. The most common radioisotope used in diagnosis is technetium-99, with some 40-45 million procedures per year (16.7 million in USA in 2012, 550,000 in Australia), accounting for 80% of all nuclear medicine procedures worldwide.’

Nuclear medicine will continue to be a significant part of our diagnostic and treatment options. Current research continues to explore uses in the battle against cancer as well as uses with AIDS and Alzheimer’s disease patients.