Cancer seen by Cherenkov radiation

A malignant tumor can be seen using computed tomography (CT), which uses X-rays – passing through body tissues with different properties, it weakens, and this weakening is then calculated by complex algorithms and turns into a portrait of our insides. The patient usually receives a contrast agent to enhance the CT x-ray. Or you can use positron emission tomography (PET): here you first need to inject the patient with a radioactive pharmaceutical preparation that will emit neutrons, positrons and neutrinos. The positron slows down in tissues and annihilates when it meets ordinary electrons – as a result of annihilation, gamma quanta appear, which are caught by special sensors. The behavior of a positron depends on the tissue in which it appeared and what molecule it collided with – by the emission of gamma rays, one can understand what is happening in this tissue. A combined PET/CT scan is often used – together they work better than separately.

Employees of the Memorial Cancer Center. Sloan-Kettering is written in Nature Biomedical Engineeringthat tumors can still be seen from Cherenkov radiation. The Vavilov-Cherenkov effect, or Vavilov-Cherenkov radiation, or simply Cherenkov radiation, is the glow of fast moving charged particles, such as electrons, which are knocked out of an atom by gamma radiation. (The speed of particles must be greater than the phase speed of light in a given medium, for example, in a liquid, but we will not delve into physics.) Cherenkov radiation is usually bluish in color, it can be observed both by eye and with the help of special sensors that will determine its parameters .

Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the neck shown by Cherenkov radiation (left) and by PET/CT (right). (Photo: E/C/ Pratt et al., Nature Biomedical Engineering, 2022)

With this medical-grade sensor, the researchers were able to “photograph” several different tumors, including lymphoma, thyroid cancer, and metastatic prostate cancer. The patients—nearly a hundred of them—were injected with one of five radioactive drugs that generated Cherenkov radiation in tissues. In general, it did not show the boundaries of the tumor as accurately as CT or PET. However, in favor of Cherenkov radiation is the fact that with it a person does not receive radiation exposure, as with CT, and with him you can use various radioactive drugs with equal success, while PET is rather capricious in this sense. According to the authors of the work, Cherenkov radiation can be used for a quick preliminary diagnosis, in order to roughly estimate the size of the tumor and to understand what more subtle diagnostic methods should be aimed at.

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