Nuclear medicine is a medical specialty which uses safe, painless, and cost-effective techniques both to image the body and treat disease. Nuclear medicine imaging is unique in that it documents organ function and structure, in contrast to diagnostic radiology which is based upon anatomy. It is a way to gather medical information that may otherwise be unavailable, require surgery, or necessitate more expensive diagnostic tests. As an integral part of patient care, nuclear medicine is used in the diagnosis, management, treatment and prevention of serious disease. Nuclear medicine imaging procedures often identify abnormalities very early in the progression of a disease - long before some medical problems are apparent with other diagnostic tests. This early detection allows a disease to be treated early in its course when there may be a more successful prognosis. Nuclear medicine uses very small amounts of radioactive materials, or radiopharmaceuticals, to diagnose and treat disease.
Radiopharmaceuticals are substances that are attracted to specific organs, bones, or tissues. When radiopharmaceuticals are introduced into the body, they produce emissions. A special type of camera, a gamma or PET camera, is used to transform these emissions into images and data which provide information about the area of the body being imaged. Although Nuclear Medicine is commonly used for diagnostic purposes, it also provides valuable therapeutic applications such as treatment of hyperthyroidism, thyroid cancer, blood imbalances and pain relief from certain types of bone cancers.
Nuclear medicine has a complex and multifaceted heritage. Its origins stem from many scientific discoveries, most notably the discovery of x-rays in 1895 and the discovery of "artificial radioactivity" in 1934. The first clinical use of "artificial radioactivity" was carried out in 1937 for the treatment of a patient with leukemia at the University of California at Berkeley. A landmark event for nuclear medicine occurred in 1946 when a thyroid cancer patient's treatment with radioactive iodine caused complete disappearance of the spread of the patient's cancer. This has been considered by some as the true beginning of nuclear medicine.
Widespread clinical use of nuclear medicine, however, did not start until the early 1950s. The value of radioactive iodine became apparent as its use increased to measure the function of the thyroid and to diagnose thyroid disease. Simultaneously, more and more physicians began to use "nuclear medicine" for the treatment of patients with hyperthyroidism. The concept of nuclear medicine was a dramatic breakthrough for diagnostic medicine. Moreover, the ability to treat a disease with radiopharmaceuticals and to record and make a "picture" of the form and structure of an organ was invaluable. In the mid-sixties and the years that followed, the growth of nuclear medicine as a specialty discipline was phenomenal. The advances in nuclear medicine technology and instrument manufacturers were critical to this development. The 1970s brought the visualization of most other organs of the body with nuclear medicine, including liver and spleen scanning, brain tumor localization, and studies of the gastrointestinal track. The 1980s provided the use of radiopharmaceuticals for such critical diagnoses as heart disease and the development of cutting-edge nuclear medicine cameras and computers.
Today, there are nearly 100 different nuclear medicine imaging procedures which uniquely provide information about virtually every major organ system within the body. Nuclear medicine is an integral part of patient care, and an important diagnostic and therapeutic specialty in the armamentarium of the medical industry.
The Nuclear Medicine Technology Program at Amarillo College is fully accredited with the JRCNMT.