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Nuclear Medicine

Nuclear Medicine

Nuclear medicine involves the injection of a radiopharmaceutical (radioactive drug) into a patient for either the diagnosis or treatment of disease. The history of nuclear medicine began with the discovery of radioactivity from uranium by the French physicist Antoine-Henri Becquerel in 1896, followed shortly thereafter by the discovery of radium and polonium by the renowned French chemists Marie and Pierre Curie. During the 1920s and 1930s radioactive phosphorus was administered to animals, and for the first time it was determined that a metabolic process could be studied in a living animal. The presence of phosphorus in the bones had been proven using radioactive material. Soon 32P was employed for the first time to treat a patient with leukemia. Using radioactive iodine, thyroid physiology was studied in the late 1930s. Strontium-89, another compound that localizes in the bones and is currently used to treat pain in patients whose cancer has spread to their bones, was first evaluated in 1939.

A nuclide consists of any configuration of protons and neutrons. There are approximately 1,500 nuclides, most of which are unstable and spontaneously release energy or subatomic particles in an attempt to reach a more stable state. This nuclear instability is the basis for the process of radioactive decay , and unstable nuclides are termed radionuclides. During the 1940s and 1950s nuclear reactors, accelerators, and cyclotrons began to be widely used for medical radionuclide production. Reactor-produced radionuclides are generally electron-rich and therefore decay by β -emission. The main application of β -emitters is for cancer therapy, although some reactor-produced radionuclides are used for nuclear medicine imaging. Cyclotron-produced radionuclides are generally prepared by bombarding a stable target (either a solid, liquid, or gas) with protons and are therefore proton-rich, decaying by β +-emission. These radionuclides have applications for diagnostic imaging by positron-emission tomography (PET). One of the most convenient methods for producing a radionuclide is by a generator. Certain parentdaughter systems involve a long-lived parent radionuclide that decays to a short-lived daughter. Since the parent and daughter nuclides are not isotopes of the same element, chemical separation is possible. The long-lived parent produces a continuous supply of the relatively short-lived daughter radionuclide and is therefore called a generator.

Currently, the majority of radiopharmaceuticals are used for diagnostic purposes. These involve the determination of a particular tissue's function, shape, or position from an image of the radioactivity distribution within that tissue or at a specific location within the body. The radiopharmaceutical localizes within certain tissues due to its biological or physiological characteristics. The diagnosis of disease states involves two imaging modalities: Gamma (γ ) scintigraphy and PET. In the 1950s γ scintigraphy was developed by Hal O. Anger, an electrical engineer at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory. It requires a radiopharmaceutical containing a radionuclide that emits γ radiation and a γ camera or single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) camera capable of imaging the patient injected with the γ -emitting radiopharmaceutical. The energy of the γ -photons is of great importance, since most cameras are designed for particular windows of energy, generally in the range of 100 to 250 kilo-electron volts (keV). The most widely used radionuclide for imaging by γ scintigraphy is 99mTc (T ½ = 6 hours), which is produced from the decay of 99Mo (T ½ = 66 hours). In 1959 the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL) developed the 99Mo/99mTc generator, and in 1964 the first 99mTc radiotracers were developed at the University of Chicago. The low cost and convenience of the 99Mo/99mTc generator, as well as the ideal photon energy of 99mTc (140 keV), are the key reasons for its widespread use. A wide variety of 99mTc radiopharmaceuticals have been developed during the last forty years, most of them coordination complexes. Many of these are currently used every day in hospitals throughout the United States to aid in the diagnosis of heart disease, cancer, and an assortment of other medical conditions.

PET was developed during the early 1970s by Michel Ter-Pogossian and his team of researchers at Washington University. It requires a radio-pharmaceutical labeled with a positron-emitting radionuclide (β +) and a PET camera for imaging the patient. Positron-decay results in the emission of two 511 keV photons 180° apart. PET scanners contain a circular array of detectors with coincidence circuits designed to specifically detect the 511 keV photons emitted in opposite directions. The positron-emitting radionuclides most frequently used for PET imaging are 15O (T ½ = 2 minutes), 13N (T ½ = 10 minutes), 11C (T ½ = 20 minutes), and 18F (T ½ = 110 minutes). Of these, 18F is most widely used for producing PET radiopharmaceuticals. The most frequently used 18F-labeled radiopharmaceutical is 2-deoxy-2 [18F]fluoro-D-glucose (FDG). This agent was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States in 1999 and is now routinely used to image various types of cancer as well as heart disease.

The use of radiopharmaceuticals for therapeutic applications (α - or β -emitters) is increasing. The first FDA-approved radiopharmaceutical in the United States was, in fact, for therapeutic use. Sodium [131I] iodide was approved in 1951 for treating thyroid patients. There are currently FDA-approved radiopharmaceuticals for alleviating pain in patients whose cancer has metastasized to their bones. These include sodium 32P-phosphate, 89Sr-chloride, and 153Sm-EDTMP (where EDTMP stands for ethylenediaminetetramethylphosphate). In February 2002 the first radiolabeled monoclonal antibody was approved by the FDA for the radioimmunotherapy treatment of cancer. Yttrium-90-labeled anti-CD20 monoclonal antibody is used to treat patients with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Many branches of chemistry are involved in nuclear medicine. Nuclear chemistry has developed accelerators and reactors for radionuclide production. Inorganic chemistry has provided the expertise for the development of metal -based radiopharmaceuticals, in particular, 99mTc radiopharmaceuticals, whereas organic chemistry has provided the knowledge base for the development of PET radiopharmaceuticals labeled with 18F, 13N, 11C, and 15O. Biochemistry is involved in understanding the biological behavior of radiopharmaceuticals, while medical doctors and pharmacists are involved in clinical studies. Nuclear medicine, which benefits the lives of millions of people every day, is truly a multidisciplinary effort, one in which chemistry plays a significant role.

see also Becquerel, Antoine-Henri; Curie, Marie Sklodowska; Nuclear Chemistry; Nuclear Fission; Radiation Exposure; Radioactivity.

Carolyn J. Anderson


McCarthy, T. J.; Schwarz, S. W.; and Welch, M. J. (1994). "Nuclear Medicine and Positron Emission Tomography: An Overview." Journal of Chemical Education 71: 830836.

Schwarz, S. W.; Anderson, C. J.; and Downer, J. B. (1997). "Radiochemistry and Radiopharmacology." In Nuclear Medicine Technology and Techniques, 4th edition, ed. D. R. Bernier, P. Christian, and J. K. Langan. St. Louis, MO: Mosby Year Book. utes),

Internet Resources

"A Brief History of Nuclear Medicine." UNM, Ltd. Available from <>.

"The History of Nuclear Medicine." Society of Nuclear Medicine. Available from <>.

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Nuclear Medicine

Nuclear medicine

Nuclear medicine is a special field of medicine in which radioactive materials are used to conduct medical research and to diagnose (detect) and treat medical disorders. The radioactive materials used are generally called radionuclides, meaning a form of an element that is radioactive.


Radionuclides are powerful tools for diagnosing medical disorders for three reasons. First, many chemical elements tend to concentrate in one part of the body or another. As an example, nearly all of the iodine that humans consume in their diets goes to the thyroid gland. There it is used to produce hormones that control the rate at which the body functions.

Second, the radioactive form of an element behaves biologically in exactly the same way that a nonradioactive form of the element behaves. When a person ingests (takes into the body) the element iodine, for example, it makes no difference whether the iodine occurs in a radioactive or nonradioactive form. In either case, it tends to concentrate in the thyroid gland.

Third, any radioactive material spontaneously decays, breaking down into some other form with the emission of radiation. That radiation can be detected by simple, well-known means. When radioactive iodine enters the body, for example, its progress through the body can be followed with a Geiger counter or some other detection instrument. Such instruments pick up the radiation given off by the radionuclide and make a sound, cause a light to flash, or record the radiation in some other way.

If a physician suspects that a patient may have a disease of the thyroid gland, that patient may be given a solution to drink that contains radioactive iodine. The radioactive iodine passes through the body and into the thyroid gland. Its presence in the gland can be detected by means of a special device. The physician knows what the behavior of a normal thyroid gland is from previous studies; the behavior of this particular patient's thyroid gland can then be compared to that of a normal gland. The test therefore allows the physician to determine whether the patient's thyroid is functioning normally.


Radionuclides can also be used to treat medical disorders because of the radiation they emit. Radiation has a tendency to kill cells. Under many circumstances, that tendency can be a dangerous side effect: anyone exposed to high levels of radiation may become ill and can even die. But the cell-killing potential of radiation also has its advantages. A major difference between cancer cells and normal cells, for example, is that the former grow much more rapidly than the latter. For this reason, radiation can be used to destroy the cells responsible for a patient's cancer.

A radionuclide frequently used for this purpose is cobalt-60. It can be used as follows. A patient with cancer lies on a bed surrounded by a large machine that contains a sample of cobalt-60. The machine is then rotated in such a way around the patient's body that the radiation released by the sample is focused directly on the cancer. That radiation kills cancer cells and, to a lesser extent, some healthy cells too. If the treatment is successful, the cancer may be destroyed, producing only modest harm to the patient's healthy cells. That "modest harm" may occur in the form of nausea, vomiting, loss of hair, and other symptoms of radiation sickness that accompany radiation treatment.

Words to Know

Diagnosis: Any attempt to identify a disease or other medical disorder.

Isotopes: Two or more forms of an element that have the same chemical properties but that differ in mass because of differences in the number of neutrons in their nuclei.

Radioactivity: The property possessed by some elements of spontaneously emitting energy in the form of particles or waves by disintegration of their atomic nuclei.

Radioactive decay: The process by which an isotope breaks down to form a different isotope, with the release of radiation.

Radioactive isotope: A form of an element that gives off radiation and changes into another isotope.

Radionuclide: A radioactive isotope.

Radioactive isotopes can be used in other ways for the treatment of medical disorders. For example, suppose that a patient has a tumor on his or her thyroid. One way of treating that tumor might be to give the patient a dose of radioactive iodine. In this case, the purpose of the iodine is not to diagnose a disorder, but to treat it. When the iodine travels to the thyroid, the radiation it gives off may attack the tumor cells present there, killing those cells and thereby destroying the patient's tumor.

Some Diagnostic Radionuclides Used in Medicine

Radionuclide Use
Chromium51 Volume of blood and of red blood cells
Cobalt58 Uptake (absorption) of vitamin B12
Gallium67 Detection of tumors and abscesses
Iodine123 Thyroid studies
Iron59 Rate of formation/lifetime of red blood cells
Sodium24 Studies of the circulatory system
Thallium201 Studies of the heart
Technetium99 Many kinds of diagnostic studies

[See also Isotope ]

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Nuclear Medicine Scans

Nuclear medicine scans


A nuclear medicine scan is a test in which radioactive material is taken into the body and is used to create an image of a specific organ or bone.


The purpose of a nuclear medicine scan is to locate areas of impaired function in the organ or bone being scanned. Nuclear medicine scans are widely used for diagnosis and monitoring of many different conditions. In the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, nuclear medicine scans are used to identify cancerous sites, for tumor localization and staging, and to judge response to therapy.


Women who are pregnant or breast feeding should not undergo this test. A patient who is unable to remain still for an extended period of time may require sedation for a nuclear medicine scan.


A nuclear medicine scan is an extremely sensitive test that can provide information about the structure and function of specific parts of the body. Types of nuclear scans include bone scans, heart scans, lung scans, kidney and bladder scans, thyroid scans, liver and spleen scans, and gallbladder scans. Brain scans are done to detect malignancy.

In a nuclear medicine scan, a small amount of radioactive material, or tracer, is injected or taken orally by the patient. After a period of time during which the radioactive material accumulates in one area of the body, a scan is taken by a special radiation detector, called a radionuclide scanner. This machine produces an image of the area for analysis by the medical team.

This test is performed in a radiology facility, either in a hospital department or an outpatient x-ray center. During the scan, the patient lies on his or her back on a table, but may be repositioned to the stomach or side during the study. The radionuclide scanner is positioned against the body part to be examined. Either the camera, the table, or both, may change position during the study. Depending on the type of scan, the procedure may take anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes. It is important for the patient not to move except when directed to do so by the technologist.


The required preparation for nuclear medicine scans ranges from slight to none. The doctor may advise that certain prescription medications be discontinued before the test or that the patient not eat for three to four hours before the test. Depending on the type of test, a reference scan or specialized blood studies may be done before the scan is taken. Jewelry or metallic objects should be removed.

The patient should advise the doctor of any previously administered nuclear medicine scans, recent surgeries, sensitivities to drugs, allergies, prescription medications, and if there is a chance that she is pregnant.


No special care is required after the test. Fluids are encouraged after the scan to aid in the excretion of the radioactive material. It should be almost completely eliminated from the body within 24 hours.


The risks of nuclear medicine scans are very low. Most scans use the same or less amount of radiation as a conventional x ray and the radioactive material is quickly passed through the body. Side effects or negative reactions to the test are very rare.

Normal results

A normal result is a scan that shows the expected distribution of the tracer and no unusual shape, size, or function of the scanned organ.

Abnormal results

Depending on the tracer and technique used, the scan can identify and image particular types of tumors or certain cancers. Too much tracer in the spleen and bones, compared to the liver, can indicate potential hypertension or cirrhosis. Liver diseases such as hepatitis may also cause an abnormal scan, but are rarely diagnosed from the information revealed by this study alone.

In a bone scan, a high concentration of tracer occurs in areas of increased bone activity. These regions appear brighter and may be referred to as "hot spots." They may indicate healing fractures, tumors, infections, or other processes that trigger new bone formation. Lower concentrations of tracer may be called "cold spots." Poor blood flow to an area of bone, or bone destruction from a tumor, may produce a cold spot.

See Also Imaging studies; Magnetic resonance imaging



Wilson, Michael, ed. Textbook of Nuclear Medicine. New York:h5Raven Press, 1998.


Society of Nuclear Medicine. 1850 Samuel Morse Dr., Reston, Virginia 20190. (703) 708-9000. Fax (703) 708-9015. <>.


Virtual Hospital: Iowa Health Book: Diagnostic Radiology: Patient's Guide to Nuclear Medicine. 25 Mar. 2001. 27 June 2001. <>.

Ellen S. Weber, M.S.N.

Paul A. Johnson, Ed.M.



A radioactive, or radiation-emitting, substance used in a nuclear medicine scan.


  • How long will my scan take?
  • How long will the tracer stay in my body?
  • Will repeat scans be necessary?

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nuclear medicine

nuclear medicine n. the use of radionuclides (especially technetium-99m) as tracers to study the structure and function of organs of the body, often using a gamma camera. See also cardiology.

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nuclear medicine

nu·cle·ar med·i·cine • n. the branch of medicine that deals with the use of radioactive substances in research, diagnosis, and treatment.

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