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Applications of Radioisotopes in Medical Imaging

written by: Leigh A. Zaykoski•edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski•updated: 9/30/2008

Radioisotopes are used frequently in medical imaging processes. Find out their major applications.

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    The recent closure of Chalk River Laboratories nuclear facilities (CRNL) in Ontario means that the medical services in Canada and around the world are confronted with a shortage of isotopes for medical diagnostics. CRNL's supply comprises about two thirds of the world's isotopes, hospitals are struggling to care for patients. But what are the radioisotopes and do they contribute to health?

    Isotopes and Positron

    Positron emission tomography (PET), also known under the name of nuclear imaging is a technique with the radioactive isotope, in certain areas of the body, both for diagnosis and research.

    As radioactive substances, isotopes are used in the decomposition stage. This deterioration leads to the emission of positrons, opposite charge of the electrons. When the electrons and positrons collide, they destroy each other, and these two types of disintegration draws out gamma rays in opposite directions. The emission of gamma rays is what the PET scanner detects.

    The amount of radiation a person receives or the subject of the investigation of the isotopes in the context of a PET is comparable to the amount of other medical procedures, but less than X-ray or CT. The amount of radiation breaks down very quickly, and has no side effects. The amount obtained is believed to be equal to 2 chest X-ray.


    The integration of research scientists radioactive isotopes in the chemical compounds that travel to certain places in the body. For example, glucose is often used because it is a substance in large quantities in the brain.

    During the study, the researchers injected subjects with a glucose-hungry isotope, before they are prompted to certain tasks within a PET scanner. The areas of the brain that is functional at the time of the task, namely, the areas that absorb glucose, is shown in the illustration is created by the PET scanner.

    Medical Applications

    A study on the PET image and its use in the diagnosis of lung cancer has shown that PET imaging is very accurate in distinguishing benign and malignant of lesions as small as 1 cm.

    New York-Presbyterian Hospital employs PET applications in the treatment of diseases of the heart to determine the cardiac function, recognize the signs of coronary heart disease, to identify the blocked arteries, and the assessment of the damage after an attack on the heart.

    Due to the large number of the use of radioactive compounds, the medical community is in fact the search for other sources for the closure CRNL. Meantime, the seriously ill patients around the world may have to wait much longer for answers to their health problems.