Nuclear Medicine: New World of Diagnosing and Treating Illness

From the FMS Global News Desk of Jeanne Hambleton

Courtesy of the Society of Nuclear Medicine – Advancing Molecular Imaging and Therapy


Nuclear medicine is a medical specialty that uses very small amounts of radioactive materials (radiopharmaceuticals) to diagnose, guide management and treat disease. Most nuclear medicine procedures are molecular imaging procedures that use radioactive substances. Molecular imaging procedures are highly effective, safe and painless diagnostic imaging and treatment tools that present physicians with a detailed view of what is going on inside an individual’s body at the cellular level.

Molecular imaging/nuclear medicine specialists can safely, effectively and painlessly determine if certain organs, such as the heart, brain, kidneys, liver, thyroid and lungs, are working properly. A molecular imaging/nuclear medicine procedure commonly used in diagnosing and guiding treatment of cancer patients is PET/CT scanning (see also “PET/CT Scanning: Get the Facts” – see below).

When very small amounts of radioactive materials are introduced into the body by injection, swallowing or inhalation, specific body organs can be targeted. These trace radiopharmaceuticals are detected by special cameras that work with computers to provide pictures of an area of the body, offering information about an organ’s physiology or function. The presence of disease is determined based on biological or molecular changes, rather than changes in anatomy. Radiopharmaceuticals go directly to the organ being targeted and are also used as treatment for hyperthyroidism, certain types of cancer such as thyroid and lymphoma, blood imbalances and pain relief for certain types of bone cancer.

Improves Patient Care

Today, molecular imaging and nuclear medicine offer procedures that are essential in many medical specialties, from pediatrics to cardiology to neurology to oncology. Molecular imaging and nuclear medicine procedures are an invaluable way to gather medical information that would otherwise be unavailable, require surgery or necessitate more expensive diagnostic tests.

These commonly performed biological imaging procedures are an integral part of patient care, identifying abnormalities very early in the progression of a disease-often before medical problems are apparent with other diagnostic tests. Early detection allows a disease to be treated when there may be a more successful prognosis.

Helps in Diagnosis and Treatment

In 2007, an estimated 16 million patients received nuclear medicine procedures in over 7,300 hospital and non-hospital sites in the United States, or approximately 68,000 patients daily ( Nearly all hospitals-in addition to many clinics and private doctors’ offices-perform nuclear medicine tests and scans. Safe, effective, painless and commonly performed procedures include positron emission tomography (PET) scans to diagnose and monitor treatment in cancer, cardiac stress tests to analyze heart function, bone scans for orthopedic injuries and lung scans for blood clots.

More than 100 different nuclear medicine imaging procedures are available, and every major organ system can be imaged. Nuclear medicine procedures are used in the diagnosis and evaluation of treatment of:

Neurological diseases
Alzheimer’s disease and dementias
Seizure disorders
Coronary artery disease
Many types of cancer
Endocrine diseases
Gastrointestinal diseases
Liver and gallbladder
Genitourinary diseases
Pulmonary diseases
Bone diseases

SNM and Nuclear Medicine

SNM is an international scientific and medical organization dedicated to raising public awareness about what molecular imaging is and how it can help provide patients with the best health care possible. SNM members specialize in molecular imaging, a vital element of today’s medical practice that adds an additional dimension to diagnosis, changing the way common and devastating diseases are understood and treated.

SNM’s more than 17,000 members set the standard for molecular imaging and nuclear medicine practice by creating guidelines, sharing information through journals and meetings and leading advocacy on key issues that affect molecular imaging and therapy research and practice. For more information, visit


Nuclear medicine specialists use safe, painless, and cost-effective techniques to image the body and treat disease. Nuclear medicine imaging is unique, because it provides doctors with information about both structure and function. It is a way to gather medical information that would otherwise be unavailable, require surgery, or necessitate more expensive diagnostic tests. Nuclear medicine imaging procedures often identify abnormalities very early in the progress of a disease – long before many medical problems are apparent with other diagnostic tests.

Nuclear medicine uses very small amounts of radioactive materials (radiopharmaceuticals) to diagnose and treat disease. In imaging, the radiopharmaceuticals are detected by special types of cameras that work with computers to provide very precise pictures about the area of the body being imaged. In treatment, the radiopharmaceuticals go directly to the organ being treated. The amount of radiation in a typical nuclear imaging procedure is comparable with that received during a diagnostic x-ray, and the amount received in a typical treatment procedure is kept within safe limits.

Today, nuclear medicine offers procedures that are essential in many medical specialties, from pediatrics to cardiology to psychiatry. New and innovative nuclear medicine treatments that target and pinpoint molecular levels within the body are revolutionizing our understanding of and approach to a range of diseases and conditions.

Would you like to know more about Nuclear Medicine? The SNM has two versions of our What Is Nuclear Medicine brochure available for download and bulk purchase. One is for General Educational Purposes and the second brochure is geared for Patients.

To download the Patients Brochure log on to

© 2009 SNM. All rights reserved


Positron Emission Tomography (PET) is a major diagnostic imaging modality used predominantly in determining the presence and severity of cancers, neurological conditions, and cardiovascular disease. It is currently the most effective way to check for cancer recurrences, and it offers significant advantages over other forms of imaging such as CT or MRI scans in detecting disease in many patients. In 2005, an estimated 1,129,900 clinical PET patient studies were performed at 1,725 sites around the country. If you’re interested in learning how a PET scan can benefit you and need additional information, talk with your local health care provider or referring physician. At the end of this page are links to other sites with PET information too.

PET images demonstrate the chemistry of organs and other tissues such as tumors. A radiopharmaceutical, such as FDG (fluorodeoxyglucose), which includes both sugar (glucose) and a radionuclide (a radioactive element) that gives off signals, is injected into the patient, and its emissions are measured by a PET scanner.

A PET scanner consists of an array of detectors that surround the patient. Using the gamma ray signals given off by the injected radionuclide, PET measures the amount of metabolic activity at a site in the body and a computer reassembles the signals into images. Cancer cells have higher metabolic rates than normal cells, so they show up as denser areas on a PET scan. PET is useful in diagnosing certain cardiovascular and neurological diseases because it highlights areas with increased, diminished or no metabolic activity, thereby pinpointing problems.

Cancer and PET

PET is considered particularly effective in identifying whether cancer is present or not, if it has spread, if it is responding to treatment, and if a person is cancer free after treatment. Cancers for which PET is considered particularly effective include lung, head and neck, colorectal, esophageal, lymphoma, melanoma, breast, thyroid, cervical, pancreatic, and brain as well as other less-frequently occurring cancers.

Early Detection:

Because PET images biochemical activity, it can accurately characterize a tumor as benign or malignant, thereby avoiding surgical biopsy when the PET scan is negative. Conversely, because a PET scan images the entire body, confirmation of distant metastasis can alter treatment plans in certain cases from surgical intervention to chemotherapy.

Staging of Cancer: PET is extremely sensitive in determining the full extent of disease, especially in lymphoma, malignant melanoma, breast, lung, colon and cervical cancers. Confirmation of metastatic disease allows the physician and patient to more accurately decide how to proceed with the patient’s management.

Checking for recurrences:

PET is currently considered to be the most accurate diagnostic procedure to differentiate tumor recurrences from radiation necrosis or post-surgical changes. Such an approach allows for the development of a more rational treatment plan for the patient.

Assessing the Effectiveness of Chemotherapy:

The level of tumor metabolism is compared on PET scans taken before and after a chemotherapy cycle. A successful response seen on a PET scan frequently precedes alterations in anatomy and would therefore be an earlier indicator of tumor response than that seen with other diagnostic modalities.

PET and CT or MRI

Because PET measures metabolism, as opposed to MRI or CT, which “see” structure, it can be superior to these modalities, particularly in separating tumor from benign lesions, and in differentiating malignant from non-malignant masses such as scar tissue formed from treatments like radiation therapy. PET is often used in conjunction with an MRI or CT scan through “fusion” to give a full three-dimensional view of an organ and the location of cancer within that organ. The newest PET scanners are a combination of PET and CT devices that provide the important metabolic information from PET superimposed on the high-quality anatomic information from CT.

Neurological Disease

PET’s ability to measure metabolism also has significant implications in diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy and other neurological conditions, because it can vividly illustrate areas where brain activity differs from the norm.

Alzheimer’s Diagnosis: Until recently, autopsy has been considered the only definitive test for Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Recent studies indicate that PET can supply important diagnostic information and confirm an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. When comparing a normal brain versus an AD-affected brain on a PET scan, a distinctive image appears in the area of the AD-affected brain. This pattern is seen very early in the AD course. Conventionally, the confirmation of AD is a long process of elimination that averages between two and three years of diagnostic and cognitive testing. Early diagnosis can provide the patient access to therapies, which are more effective earlier in the disease.

PET also is useful in differentiating Alzheimer’s disease from other forms of dementia disorders, such as vascular dementia, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, etc.


PET is one of the most accurate methods available to localize areas of the brain causing epileptic seizures and to determine if surgery is a treatment option.

Cardiovascular Disease

By measuring both blood flow (perfusion) and metabolic rate within the heart, physicians using PET scans can pinpoint areas of decreased blood flow, such as those with blockages, and differentiate living muscle from damaged muscle, which has inadequate blood flow (myocardial viability). This information is particularly important in patients who have had previous myocardial infarction (heart attack) and who are being considered for a procedure such as angioplasty or coronary artery bypass surgery.

Cost & Reimbursement:

PET scan charges range from $850–$4,000, depending on the type of scan. American Insurance companies will cover the cost of many PET scans. Medicare reimburses for almost all cancers. Some indications have already been determined to be reimbursable, others are reimbursed as long as they are part of a qualified clinical trial or a clinical study to determine the effectiveness of PET in imaging specific cancers. Medicare is constantly updating reimbursements, so visit the SNM Web site to find the latest information.

History of PET

In the 1970s PET scanning was formally introduced to the medical community. At that time it was seen as an exciting new research modality that opened doors through which medical researchers could watch, study, and understand the biology of human disease.

In 1976, the radiopharmaceutical fluorine-18-2-fluoro-2-deoxyglucose (FDG), a marker of sugar metabolism with a half-life of 110 minutes, enabled tracer doses to be administered safely to the patient with low radiation exposure. The development of radiopharmaceuticals like FDG made it easier to study living beings, and set the groundwork for more in-depth research into using PET to diagnose and evaluate the effect of treatment on human disease.

To perform PET studies in the late 1970s, a large staff was needed: physicists to run the cyclotron that produces the fluorine-18 and to oversee the scanner, chemists to make the tracers such as FDG, and dedicated, specialist physicians.

During the 1980s the technology that underlies PET advanced greatly. Commercial PET scanners were developed with more precise resolution and images. As a result, many of the steps required for producing a PET scan became automated and could be performed by a trained technician and experienced physician, thereby reducing the cost and complexity of the procedure. Smaller, self-shielded cyclotrons were developed, making it possible to install cyclotrons at more locations.

Over the last several years, the major advance in this technology has been the combining of a CT scanner and a PET scanner in one device. The modern PET/CT scanner allows a study to be done in a shorter amount of time but still provides more diagnostic information.

PET Today

PET and PET/CT are widely available today. The technology is robust and provides high-quality images. Some of the earlier roadblocks to having or using a PET or PET/CT device—such as availability of particular radiopharmaceuticals—are no longer present.

Reviewed by R. Edward Coleman, MD

© 2009 SNM. All rights reserved.

About jeanne hambleton

Journalist-wordsmith, former reporter, columnist, film critic, editor, Town Clerk and then fibromite and eventer with 5 conferences done and dusted. Interested in all health and well being issues, passionate about research to find a cure and cause for fibromyalgia. Member LinkedIn. Worked for 4 years with FMA UK as Regional Coordinator for SW and SE,and Chair for FMS SAS the Sussex and Surrey FM umbrella charity and Chair Folly Pogs Fibromyalgia Research UK - finding funding for our "cause for a cure" and President and co ordinator of National FM Conferences. Just finished last national annual Fibromyalgia Conference Weekend. This was another success with speakers from the States . Next year's conference in Chichester Park Hotel, West Sussex, will be April 24/27 2015 and bookings are coming in from those who raved about the event every year. I am very busy but happy to produce articles for publication. News Editor of FMS Global News on line but a bit behind due to conference. A workaholic beyond redemption! The future - who knows? Open to offers with payment. Versatile and looking for a regular paid column - you call the tune and I will play the pipes.
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