The Use of Radioactive Elements in Medicine - Essay Example

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George Washington University
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Radioactive elements are the chemical components that are subject to spontaneous degeneration of their nucleus accompanied by the emission of alpha particles, beta particles or gamma rays. According to the World Nuclear Association, these components break down over time by releasing energy and getting converted into stable elements (World Nuclear Association). Although these elements have been highly applied in nearly all the facets of scientific research, not much has been studied on their applicability. For this reason, the core intent of this essay is to discuss the significant use of radioactive elements in medicine.

To begin with, the use of radioactive elements can be traced back to the 19th century when a German scientist, Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen discovered x-rays (Reed). Advancements in the use of various radioactive materials were later made by Henry Becquerel who discovered uranium as a radioactive element and that it could be used in x-rays. Pierre and Marie Curie in 1898 found out polonium and radium to be more reactive than uranium and used radium to alleviate suffering during the World War I period (Reed). In the 1950s physicians established the use of iodine-131 to treat thyroid cancer and since then technological and scientific advances have allowed for the development of more sophisticated methods of employing radioactive elements in medicine.

Radioactivity has significantly been embraced in medicine considering the benefits of some radioactive elements, for instance, technetium-99 (Tc-99), Molybdenum- 99 (Mo-99), iodine-131(I-131), strontium-89 (Sr-89) and lutetium -177(Lu-177) among others. The clinical use of radioactive elements is indeed diverse and includes diagnostic procedures, therapeutic processes, sterilization of medical products and medical research (Delwiche).

Medical imaging is essential in examining blood flow to the brain and functioning of internal organs, for instance, the liver, kidneys, lungs, and heart. Diagnostic techniques in nuclear medicine make use of radioactive tracers that emit gamma rays from within thus enabling physicians to detect anomalies or diseases in internal organs. These radioactive tracers may be administered orally, injections or through inhalation. X-rays, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Computerized Tomography (CT) Scan are medical imaging procedures that utilize radioactivity. Mo-99 and Tc-99 are majorly used in radiopharmaceuticals to diagnose the liver, bones, and lungs while I-131is used in the imaging of the thyroid and treatment of thyroid cancer. In medical imaging Single, Photon Emission Computerized Tomography (SPECT) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) are used.

SPECT involves single photons detected by a gamma camera that views the organs from different angles; the image is then enhanced on a monitor for indications of abnormal conditions. PET is a more precise technique which where positron-emitting radionuclides are introduced into the target tissue, and as these radioactive elements decay, they promptly combine with nearby electrons resulting in the emission of two identifiable gamma rays in opposite directions. A PET camera detects these emissions and provides specific and precise indications of their origin (World Nuclear Association).These medical imaging techniques have eliminated the need for exploratory surgery thus reducing the risks or surgery-related complications.

Radioactive elements are also very instrumental in various therapeutic processes. The mitigation and treatment of cancers, tumors, and growths have been one of the most significant nuclear medicine advancement. External irradiation or teletherapy involves intense beam radiation from a high activity radioisotope like Cobalt-60 sources to a focused tissue. The gamma knife radiation surgery where a gamma knife that has a collimating helmet uses radiation from numerous cobalt-60 sources directed to a specific location deep in the brain. This form of therapy is useful in the ablation of tumors and growth rather than their removal. Another type of treatment is the internal radionuclide therapy also known as brachytherapy. It involves lower activity gamma or beta emitter radioactive sources which are placed close or within a cancerous tissue such as the breast, prostate or cervix. These radioactive sources include seeds or implants surgically implanted into patients and later removed after the prescribed dose is received (Mcparland). Targeted alpha therapy treatment has also been adopted in handling conditions that exhibit dispersed cancer cells.

High doses of radioactive elements may be injected or ingested by a patient to suppress tumors or cancerous growths. The treatment of leukemia may involve a bone marrow transplant where the defective bone is eliminated using a massive dose of radiation before conducting a bone transplant. However, both telegraphy and brachytherapy techniques have been used in combination where the external irradiation aims at destroying cancerous cells in the area surrounding the tumor while brachytherapy aims at eliminating the concentrated or specific tumor area (Donya et al.).

Additionally, radioactive elements are used in the sterilization of medical equipment and products. Gamma rays are effective in the sterilization of heat sensitive medical equipment and products for instance ointments, powders, solutions, grafting tissues and bones. Surgical equipment, cotton wool, syringes, rubber sheets and bandages can easily be sterilized using radioisotopes even when packaged (McParland). Researchers in the medical filed are in the constant study of radioactive elements to establish the causes and cures for diseases and conditions like AIDS, Alzheimers disease and cancer. Indeed, the significant contribution of radioactive elements in medicine cannot be short-changed.

Works Cited

Delwiche, Frances A. "Mapping the literature of radiation therapy." Journal of the Medical Library Association : JMLA, vol. 101, no. 2, 2013, pp. 120-127.

Donya, Mohamed, et al. "Radiation in medicine: Origins, risks and aspirations." Global Cardiology Science and Practice, vol. 2014, no. 4, 2014, p. 57.

Mcparland, B J. Nuclear Medicine Radiation Dosimetey: Advanced Theoretical Principles. Springer, 2011.

Reed, Amy B. "The history of radiation use in medicine." Journal of Vascular Surgery, vol. 53, no. 1, 2011, pp. 3S-5S.

World Nuclear Association. Radioisotopes in Medicine. October 2017. Document. 17 October 2017.

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