History of Nuclear Medicine

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The history of nuclear medicine is rich with contributions from gifted scientists across different disciplines in physics, chemistry, engineering, and medicine.

The multidisciplinary nature of Nuclear Medicine makes it difficult for medical historians to determine the birthdate of Nuclear Medicine.

This can probably be best placed between the discovery of artificial radioactivity in 1934 and the production of radionuclides by Oak Ridge National Laboratory for medicine related use, in 1946.

Many historians consider the discovery of artificially produced radioisotopes by Frédéric Joliot-Curie and Irène Joliot-Curie in 1934 as the most significant milestone in Nuclear Medicine.

Although, the earliest use of I-131 was devoted to therapy of thyroid cancer, its use was later expanded to include imaging of the thyroid gland, quantification of the thyroid function, and therapy for hyperthyroidism.

Widespread clinical use of Nuclear Medicine began in the early 1950s, as knowledge expanded about radionuclides, detection of radioactivity, and using certain radionuclides to trace biochemical processes.

Pioneering works by Benedict Cassen in developing the first rectilinear scanner and Hal O. Anger's scintillation camera (Anger camera) broadened the young discipline of Nuclear Medicine into a full-fledged medical imaging specialty.

In these years of Nuclear Medicine, the growth was phenomenal. The Society of Nuclear Medicine was formed in 1954 in Spokane, Washington, USA.

In 1960, the Society began publication of the Journal of Nuclear Medicine, the premier scientific journal for the discipline in America.

There was a flurry of research and development of new radionuclides and radiopharmaceuticals for use with the imaging devices and for in-vitro studies5.

Among many radionuclides that were discovered for medical-use, none were as important as the discovery and development of Technetium-99m.

It was first discovered in 1937 by C. Perrier and E. Segre as an artificial element to fill space number 43 in the Periodic Table.

The development of generator system to produce Technetium-99m in the 1960s became a practical method for medical use.

Today, Technetium-99m is the most utilized element in Nuclear Medicine and is employed in a wide variety of Nuclear Medicine imaging studies.

By the 1970s most organs of the body could be visualized using Nuclear Medicine procedures. In 1971, American Medical Association officially recognized nuclear medicine as a medical specialty.

In 1972, the American Board of Nuclear Medicine was established, cementing Nuclear Medicine as a medical specialty.

In the 1980s, radiopharmaceuticals were designed for use in diagnosis of heart disease. The development of single photon emission tomography, around the same time, led to three-dimensional reconstruction of the heart and establishment of the field of Nuclear Cardiology.

More recent developments in Nuclear Medicine include the invention of the first positron emission tomography scanner (PET).

The concept of emission and transmission tomography, later developed into single photon emission computed tomography (SPECT), was introduced by David E. Kuhl and Roy Edwards in the late 1950s.

Their work led to the design and construction of several tomographic instruments at the University of Pennsylvania. Tomographic imaging techniques were further developed at the Washington University School of Medicine.

These innovations led to fusion imaging with SPECT and CT by Bruce Hasegawa from University of California San Francisco (UCSF), and the first PET/CT prototype by D. W. Townsend from University of Pittsburgh in 1998 .

PET and PET/CT imaging experienced slower growth in its early years owing to the cost of the modality and the requirement for an on-site or nearby cyclotron.

However, an administrative decision to approve medical reimbursement of limited PET and PET/CT applications in oncology has led to phenomenal growth and widespread acceptance over the last few years.

PET/CT imaging is now an integral part of oncology for diagnosis, staging and treatment monitoring.