Think of radioactive materials: where’s the first place your mind goes? Chances are it’s not to medicine. Bombs, nuclear fission for generating power, harmful radioactive waste—the public’s exposure to radioactive materials has a dubious past. In modern medical science, however, several different kinds of radioactive materials play essential roles in facilitating some very common medical procedures which might otherwise be unavailable.
Many modern imaging techniques (X-rays, computerized tomography scans, and magnetic resonance imaging) use radiation to penetrate the body and provide physicians with detailed information of any possible internal damage. Depending on the affected areas, physicians may require patients to ingest radioactive dyes in order to create stronger contrast during the imaging exams. These dyes (usually called radioactive contrast agents) help in clarifying the affected area for physicians making the diagnosis.
While many members of the public may believe that radiological imaging techniques are used simply for broken bones, the truth is that modern nuclear medicine uses radiological imaging to help in diagnosing a tremendous variety of conditions. Nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is used particularly when soft tissue damage is suspected, as this particular type of imaging allows for more detailed study of the body’s nerves, muscles, tendons, and organs. Computerized tomography scans (CT scans) process specialized X-rays via a computer to create a cross-sectional map of neurological tissue, allowing physicians to accurately diagnose brain tumors.
In addition to radiological imaging techniques, radiation therapy is also one of the primary treatments for cancer patients. Extremely detailed radiological imaging provides physicians with an exact location for a patient’s tumors, and based on the cancer’s progression a radiation treatment plan can be determined. These maps are dependent on the patient remaining very still, so molds or braces may be necessary to ensure the correct locations are scanned during each successive imaging procedure. The radiation therapy itself works by damaging the DNA in cancer cells, leading to tumor shrinkage and (ideally) remission. Unfortunately, the body’s normal tissues are also damaged, leading to progressively more serious side effects.
Not surprisingly, researchers have directed advances in nuclear medicine and the emerging field of nanotechnology toward finding a more precise treatment methodology with fewer harmful side effects. Since nanotechnology involves manipulating matter and changing its properties and structure at the nanoscale, researchers hope to implement radioactive treatments that are much more localized in their effects on cancerous tumors, in addition to producing less severe side effects. Medical scientists are also researching new methods in drug delivery (the way drugs are absorbed by the body) to develop refinements in how internal radioactive therapy is administered.