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Simulations Find Gamma, Neutron Imaging Safe

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Computer simulations indicate that, for the most part, new gamma and neutron imaging techniques would be safe, delivering roughly the same radiation dosages as X-rays or CT scans—at least while imaging the liver or breast.

Researchers at Duke Medicine in Durham, North Carolina, came to that conclusion. And the new techniques offer advantages, said Anuj J. Kapadia, PhD, assistant professor of radiology at Duke University School of Medicine:

Gamma and neutron imaging may eventually be able to help us detect cancer earlier without having to perform an invasive biopsy.

Dr. Kapadia was quoted in a Duke news release. He is senior author of an article about the research published in the June issue of Medical Physics.

Duke researchers have been experimenting with neutron stimulated emission computed tomography and gamma stimulated emission computed tomography. Both work differently from other imaging techniques in that they measure the concentrations of elements in the body. They are able to detect molecular properties without the aid of contrast media.

Many tumors, even in their earliest stages, have out-of-balance concentrations of trace elements found naturally in the body, such as aluminum and rubidium. Neutron and gamma imaging could potentially find such tumors very early, before they are large enough to show up on MRI or X-ray–based scans.

The new techniques might also provide an early indication of the effectiveness of cancer treatment. Instead of waiting to see whether tumors shrink, doctors could use neutron or gamma imaging to read molecular changes within the tumor.

However, the safety of the techniques has been questioned, particularly because neutrons scatter considerably when they strike tissue. Duke computer simulations of breast and liver scans found, however, that very little radiation would be delivered to parts of the body outside the neutron beam. There was an issue with gamma scans of the liver: the computer found that the stomach wall, directly in the path of the beam, would absorb more radiation than the targeted liver. As the article says, “Further technique modifications are needed to reduce the effective dose levels from the gamma scans.”

Both techniques are a long way from clinical use; animal testing has not yet begun. But, Dr. Kapadia said, “The results show that despite the use of a highly scattering particle such as a neutron, the dose from neutron imaging is on par with other clinical imaging techniques, such as X-ray CT. Neutron and gamma radiation may become viable imaging alternatives if further testing proves them to be safe and effective.”

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