Nuclear Medicine, an exploding market

A convergence of factors will accelerate the boom in nuclear medicine in the coming years, according to many experts in the field.

Nuclear medicine allows to (almost) non-invasively diagnose and/or treat many illnesses and conditions, hence its advantage vs other medical protocols such as biopsies and surgeries. In short it can be defined as a branch of radiology, which deals with the administration of radioactive substances to a patient either for diagnostic or treatment purposes. The multidisciplinary nature of nuclear medicine (involving physicians, chemists, engineers, physicists) makes tracing its origins somewhat challenging. One thing for sure, we can safely say that it is after the discovery of radioactivity by Henri Becquerel in 1896! The term “isotope” (meaning “same place”) was coined by Frederick Soddy in 1913.

Typically in interventional nuclear medicine, a beta particle emitting radioisotope is administered to the patient and the short range ionizing property of the radiation destroys the targeted diseased tissue. Iodine-131 for example, is used in the treatment of thyroid cancer and hyperthyroidism. Compared to conventional radiotherapy, such treatments can be conducted as outpatient procedures, because of the much reduced side effects and lightness of the procedure.

In a typical diagnostic scenario, an organ specific ligand is attached to a gamma ray emitting radionuclide, and the resulting radiopharmaceutical injected in the body. The resulting image is that of the tracer’s distribution in the body hence resulting in a functional image of the targeted organ or tissue, as opposed to an anatomical image from conventional imaging techniques such as MRI or CT scans. Hybrid scanning techniques give the best of both worlds, superimposing e.g. a CT and a PET scan image.

These hybrid imaging techniques allow physicians to visualize anatomy and physiology simultaneously on the same image. Although these images measure more parameters single modality techniques, they still provide a static picture. A new triunal imaging technique, combining PET-CT-UUI modalities (ultrafast ultrasound imaging) is able to capture thousands of images per second in 3D, hence enabling the capture of dynamic phenomena. Such combined imaging modalities is one of the convergence factors promoting the coming boom in nuclear medicine.

Artificial Intelligence is another factor. Gartner, a consultancy, deemed 2018 the year of AI Democratization. AI is used to tackle one of medical imaging’s biggest challenge: image processing. First, the sheer (and growing) amount of data to analyse makes AI an obvious choice. AI also alleviates human cognitive biases, which can lead to erroneous diagnostics. AI can even be used upstream to first construct high quality images with fewer data points. This use of AI results in the added benefit that patients need be exposed to lesser doses of radiation and undergo shorter scans.

New tracing agents are continuously designed, e.g. for brain scans, making diagnoses and treatment assessments ever more precise and efficient. New, improved protocols using existing agents and technologies are being developed to achieve the same goals of better patient outcome. Specialized hardware, from microchips to supercomputers, are being designed specifically for medical imaging purposes.

Nuclear medicine is also becoming a key component of population health in many different ways. Imaging data, for instance, can be used along with other data to help establish better population health management strategies. Another example is the Sterile Insect Technique which plays a vital role is controlling vector driven diseases such as Dengue or Zika.

These are some of the factors combining together to grow the nuclear medicine and radiopharmaceuticals market at an impressive CAGR of almost 10% in the next few years to over USD 9 Billion in 2023, according to a recent report, a big part of which coming from AI, according to a PwC report.

Finally, did you know that there is a connection between clouds (the ones in the sky, not the computing one), lightning and nuclear medicine? Find out here.

As always, comments, questions, feedback are welcome.

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