Nuclear medicine is a unique branch of medicine and medical radiations which uses radioactive substances, called radiopharmaceuticals, to diagnose or treat disease.
A radiopharmaceutical can be either a radionuclide or a radionuclide labelled to a pharmaceutical. In diagnostic nuclear medicine, radiopharmaceuticals are administered to patients intravenously, orally or by inhalation, and then the radiation emitted from the patient or a patient sample is detected. The administration of the radiopharmaceutical rarely causes any discomfort and patients are often surprised at how easy it is. When administered, the radiopharmaceutical moves to and localises in a particular part of the body. The majority of these tests then involve the creation of a series of images by a gamma camera or PET camera of the organ or system being investigated. Some nuclear medicine tests require the analysis of biological specimens in the laboratory.
Nuclear medicine imaging is unique because, as well as structural information, it can provide detailed information about changes in the function or physiology of virtually every organ or system in the human body.
Functional changes often occur before anatomical ones, and so nuclear medicine studies have the potential to identify abnormalities and changes very early in the disease process compared to other diagnostic tests.
In therapeutic nuclear medicine, radionuclides are administered to patients intravenously or orally and localise in the organ or system being treated. The radiation kills cancer cells and shrinks tumours. Radionuclide therapy plays an important role in the treatment of several types of cancer.
Nuclear medicine studies are essential in many medical specialties including cardiology, oncology, orthopaedics, paediatrics, endocrinology and urology. In addition, nuclear medicine is providing new and innovative procedures able to target and examine the molecular basis of disease, and in doing so is helping to change and advance understandings of disease processes and treatments.