One of the more interesting things to emerge from nuclear weapons development was the use of radioisotopes in medicine. Before the end of World War II, there wasn’t much in the way of peaceful uses for radioisotopes. But in 1946, the Manhattan Project found a way to use its weapons technologies for the common good. It used a reactor at Oak Ridge to produce isotopes that could be distributed widely for research, medicine and industrial uses.
The Oak Ridge reactor offered a new family of isotopes created when uranium atoms fission, or split apart. These “byproduct” materials have many uses. It works like this: Radioisotopes give off energy that can be detected as they move through the body, allowing them to be used as “tracers.” This allows technicians to view different processes of the body than can be seen on x-rays. In larger amounts, some isotopes can also be used to target and destroy tumors.
Today, about 17 million patients each year in the U.S. benefit from imaging with radioisotopes or are involved in research, according to the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging. About 150,000 patients a year undergo radionuclide therapy.
More than half of the diagnostic procedures are cardiovascular studies. But nuclear medicine patients may have cancer, diabetes, even Alzheimer’s disease. Radioisotopes are also used for bone scans, to locate tumors, to treat infections, and for studies of the liver, kidney, and lungs. And new procedures are being developed all the time.
The NRC’s job is to review uses of radioisotopes in medicine and determine if they can be safe both for the patient and the medical personnel – as well as the public. To ensure the NRC has access to the best available information for our reviews, we rely on a committee of experts known as the Advisory Committee on the Medical Uses of Isotopes.
This committee is made up of 13 health care professionals from several disciplines, including nuclear medicine, nuclear cardiology, nuclear pharmacy, medical physics, patients’ rights advocacy and health care administration. There are also representatives from the Food and Drug Administration and an NRC Agreement State—a state that has assumed regulatory authority over certain radioactive materials used in their state. They are appointed by the Commission and serve four-year terms. They meet twice and have three teleconferences each year.
These committee members advise the NRC on technical and policy issues related to nuclear medicine. Last year, the committee provided advice on changes needed to our regulations on medical isotopes and trends in a relatively new therapy called Y-90 microsphere brachytherapy. This therapy uses tiny beads containing radioactive material to target and destroy liver tumors while preserving healthy tissue.