Cancer Treatment: Cancer is a complex and devastating group of diseases in which the body’s own cells begin to grow abnormally and uncontrollably and also spread throughout the body. It is essentially like the body is at war with itself. Currently, it is the second leading cause of death worldwide and its causes are not fully understood. What’s more, each case of cancer is unique, making it a difficult and ongoing battle. However, there is hope. Researchers and scientists are working tirelessly to develop new technologies and treatments to fight cancer, one of which is the promising field of radioisotope therapy.
What are radioisotopes?
An atom is made up of protons, electrons, and neutrons, which can be thought of as the building blocks of matter. While all atoms of a given element have the same number of protons, which determines the element, the number of neutrons can vary. These variations of a given element with different numbers of neutrons are called isotopes. Some isotopes are not stable due to the extra neutrons than the naturally occurring atom of that element. These unstable isotopes emit energy in the form of radiation in order to become stable, and thus are called radioisotopes. The characteristics of radiation emitted by radioisotopes, such as the type, energy level, and duration of the emission, play a crucial role in tracking and the selection of radioisotopes for medicine. Since the radioisotopes used are injected into the patient’s bloodstream, they need to have relatively lower energy and should stop emitting radiation after a short period of time to minimize harm to the body.
How are radioisotopes used in medicine?
Radioisotopes have long been used in the sterilization of medical equipment. But now they have a more advanced use. As mentioned before, patients with certain cancers are injected with chemicals called radiopharmaceuticals, which are laced with radioisotopes. Specialized cameras are then used to track and image these radioisotopes in the body. The radiopharmaceuticals are chosen such that tumors or cancer cells in the body absorb them, since the cameras can trace the radiation emitted from the radioisotopes in these chemicals, they then create images of where the tumors are located in the body. This helps doctors to diagnose cancer. In addition to diagnosis, there are now ways to use radioisotopes to directly target and kill cancer cells through a treatment called targeted radiotherapy. This method uses even smaller amounts of radioisotopes and specifically targets cancer cells while minimizing damage to healthy cells. The field of radioisotope treatment for cancer is advancing rapidly with ongoing research to identify the most effective radioisotopes for different types of cancer along with extensive research on how to effectively produce them.
Where are radioisotopes made?
To produce radioisotopes from naturally occurring elements, the element must be exposed to high-energy neutron fields, which are typically found in nuclear reactors. Some small-scale research reactors are dedicated to the production of radioisotopes, but production can also be expanded by retrofitting existing power-generating nuclear reactors to produce these lifesaving radioisotopes. While some commercial power plants around the world produce radioisotopes, the majority do not. However, incorporating the capability to produce radioisotopes in these power plants could allow the nuclear industry to expand its potential uses beyond just energy production.
Challenges facing radioisotopes:
- Producing radioisotopes requires extensive research in selecting the appropriate isotope required for treatment, based on the availability and physical properties of the isotope, as well as developing and implementing the necessary systems for their commercial production of them.
- The radioisotopes, when extracted from nuclear reactors or produced in specialized facilities, produce ionizing radiation, making it crucial to take appropriate measures to handle and transport them safely.
- The logistics involved in handling, transporting, processing, and delivering the radioisotopes to the doctors and ultimately the patient is complex and time-sensitive, as any delays can cause the radioisotopes to lose their effectiveness.
- There is a need for increased training for doctors in the use of radioisotopes, as the current number of trained professionals may not be sufficient to meet the growing demand for this treatment.
Reasons to continue research into radioisotopes:
- Targeted radiotherapy using radioisotopes is less harmful and often less costly for patients compared to chemotherapy if the treatment allows for it.
- New opportunities for treating previously life-threatening cancers with radioisotopes are emerging as research progresses, expanding their potential use for patients.
- The use of radioisotopes has the potential to improve outcomes for patients with advanced cancer that has spread throughout the body, as it allows for more precise tracking and targeting of cancer cells.
- Incorporating the capability to produce radioisotopes into existing commercially operated nuclear power reactors can help improve public perception of the nuclear industry.
In the fight against cancer, researchers and doctors now have a powerful new tool at their disposal in the form of radioisotopes. These isotopes have the potential to greatly improve cancer diagnosis and treatment, although they do require significant care and attention in terms of handling and logistics. Despite these challenges, the use of radioisotopes brings hope to those affected by cancer. Furthermore, the use of nuclear power required in the production of radioisotopes also offers the potential for net carbon neutrality, making it a promising solution for both cancer treatment and environmental sustainability. In the ongoing battle against cancer and the quest for a sustainable future, hope is a vital weapon – and the nuclear industry offers a shining beacon of hope for both.
The author is based in Toronto, Canada, and is an Authorized Nuclear Operator (CNSC) and an Entrepreneur affiliated with the Indo-Canadian Corridor for Nuclear and SMR technology. He is part of the elite group of Nuclear Operators having a Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s License to manage CANDU Rectors and working at the world’s largest operating nuclear power plant – Bruce Power.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house.