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Nuclear medicine: A beacon of hope in cancer treatment

February 5, 2024 Word for Word Media 0Comment

Dr Dineo Mpanya demystifies nuclear medicine and helps us understand the integral role it plays in cancer care.


Nuclear medicine makes the invisible cancer visible.”


In our lives, we all know someone touched by the resilient spirit of cancer; some bravely fighting, others celebrating victory. As we reflect on the strides made in cancer care, it’s crucial to shed light on the transformative potential of nuclear medicine. While we navigate the complexities of oncology, understanding the pivotal role of nuclear medicine in diagnosing and treating cancer is paramount.

Cancer is like a rebel force, an unwanted growth of abnormal cells anywhere in the body. While genetics may play a role, environmental factors like sunlight and food chemicals can spark this cellular rebellion. Often, these abnormal cancer cells quietly grow, revealing no symptoms until later stages when they decide to spread to other sites. This is known as metastasis.

What is nuclear medicine?

Nuclear medicine is a term often misunderstood but in actual fact, in hospitals, tiny amounts of nuclear energy are superhero allies for doctors. Unlike static X-rays which only show still pictures of internal organs, nuclear medicine offers a dynamic look at organ function, like a live-action video of the body’s inner workings.

In a nuclear medicine department, patients receive a small amount of radiation through an injection, called a radiopharmaceutical or tracer. After receiving the tracer, the patient may be asked to wait, to allow the tracer to reach all sites in the body. Thereafter, the patient lies down in a special camera which tracks the distribution of the injected material. This helps doctors assess how far the cancer has spread, providing crucial information for specially tailored treatment plans.

Superhero scans: bone scan and PET scan

Ever heard of a PET scan? PET has nothing to do with the lovely domestic friends you share your home with, but it’s an acronym for positron emission tomography. Just imagine the audience you will capture during a conversation, “Oh, I might be late for the book club meeting on Thursday morning Alice, I’m booked for a positron emission tomography scan that morning.”

When it comes to cancer care, the bone scan and PET scan are superhero scans in the field of nuclear medicine. A bone scan checks if cancer has spread into the bones. All areas with cancer on the bone scan typically appear as focal hot spots that are almost impossible to miss.

The PET scan goes all-out, illuminating the entire body, and showing all sites with cancer cells. It’s like a cosmic map where areas with cancer light up, guiding doctors to the right treatment path.

Most cancers, such as breast cancer, rely on glucose or sugar to grow. Nuclear medicine takes advantage of this by injecting a tracer similar in structure to an actual glucose molecule. All the areas in the body where the cancer cells are found, light up on the scan, irrespective of where the cancer is hiding.

The PET scan isn’t just a one-time show. It’s often requested before and after treatment. It may reveal if treatment worked or if remnants of the disease linger.

Specialised nuclear medicine injectable treatments

For certain cancers, like prostate and neuroendocrine tumours, nuclear medicine even offers specialised injectable treatments with minimal side effects, allowing patients to maintain their everyday lives. What sets nuclear medicine apart is that the radiation is injected into the body and naturally exits within hours, leaving no lasting trace.

The role of nuclear medicine in cancer is looking more brighter than ever. For almost all types of cancer, nuclear medicine offers a specific tracer, and subsequently treats the same cancer cells with another unique injection. The treatment binds directly to the cancer cells, ensuring that there are minimal, or no side effects experienced by patients. We further use scans after the treatment to prove that there are no cancer cells left in the body.

The potential of targeted radiopharmaceuticals in cancer treatment is immense. As we celebrate this progress, we look to the horizon, where promising therapies await their moment to shine. Together, with our dedicated healthcare professionals, we aim not only to solidify the presence of these life-saving products but also to pave the way for future breakthroughs in cancer treatment.

Navigating the landscape of cancer care requires collaboration, innovation, and unwavering dedication. As we continue to demystify nuclear medicine and its role in cancer treatment, we stand united in our mission to make a meaningful impact in patient lives, one breakthrough at a time. Nuclear medicine makes the invisible cancer visible.

Figure 1. Patient flow in a nuclear medicine department.
Figure 1. Patient flow in a nuclear medicine department.
Dr Dineo Mpanya

MEET THE EXPERT – Dr Dineo Mpanya


Dr Dineo Mpanya is a medical doctor, nuclear medicine and molecular imaging specialist, clinician-scientist, and educator deeply committed to advancing healthcare and cardiovascular research in SA. She is also an independent contractor for NTP Radioisotopes SOC Ltd.


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This article is sponsored by NTP Radioisotopes SOC Ltd in the interest of education, awareness and support. The content and opinions expressed are entirely the doctor’s own work and not influenced by NTP Radioisotopes in any way.

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