Tech Tuesday: Nuclear Physicists Take Aim at Breast Cancer


Let’s delve a little deeper into a topic I have mentioned before in a blog post - nuclear medicine. Nuclear medicine can be simply described as that area of healthcare that uses nuclear physics principles to detect and/or treat disease. Cancer is one disease where the power of nuclear medicine has been brought to bear in multiple ways. While nuclear physics has been used to diagnose and treat many types of cancer, since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I decided to focus this post on breast cancer.

According to the National Cancer Institute there will be nearly 300,000 new cases of breast cancer in the US in 2018 and approximately 12.4% of women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their life. As I was staring at my computer screen thinking how I would get across the incredible impact nuclear physics has made in breast cancer detection, I could sense I was going to get geeky. But a voice inside my head said before getting geeky I should “Tell the readers what’s in it for them.” So in a nutshell, nuclear physics made it possible to trick breast tumors (even small ones) into announcing where they are hiding out in the breast. Just like the story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing, cancer cells can look like healthy tissue. But nuclear physics, in a sense, can turn the wolf’s sheep’s clothing bright red. This can be a big help to doctors when a mammogram doesn’t provide clear results.

Say Hello to the Geek

Now for the geeky part. Many of you probably know this and can jump down to the next paragraph but here goes. All matter, i.e. rocks, stars, snails and people, are made of many different atoms like copper, oxygen, hydrogen, blah, blah, blah which are all listed in the “Periodic Table of the Elements."

All atoms are composed of a nucleus at their “center” where protons and neutrons reside. These are called nucleons because they are in the nucleus. Existing on the “surface” of an atom are various numbers of other particles called electrons. I am really using air quotes here because I don’t really have the space here to go into what is really at the “center” or “surface” of atoms. Jefferson Lab actually uses electrons to poke at the insides of protons and neutrons but you can check that out here. There are families of an element which are called isotopes. For instance, carbon has 15 isotopes; some naturally occurring, some artificially made and some that when left alone to their own devices over time, change into a different atom entirely. These “changers” are radioactive isotopes which, over time, decay resulting in a different atom and often in the process “radiate” or emit a subatomic particle such as electrons, alpha particles or photons (photons are also called visible light, x-rays, or gamma- rays.)

Painting the Wolf

Nuclear physics helps make breast cancer cells announce their location. Researchers construct special chemicals called radiopharmaceuticals that basically have two parts: one part that grabs a hold of the cancer cell and another part that has a radioactive atom. When the radioactive atom decays, it tosses out a gamma-ray which can actually be described as a sort of high energy x-ray. It’s this gamma-ray than can be detected outside of the patient using a “gamma-camera.” The gamma-ray’s path through the breast is not hindered, like x-rays can be in the case of a mammogram, by dense breast tissue.

What’s a Mammogram?

 A mammogram uses an x-ray “flash” much like a camera uses a light flash during the taking of a photograph. The difference is that the x-ray passes through the breast and an “x-ray camera” records the “shadow” cast by the breast. However, the shadow is an image that shows the differences in breast tissue density on a very fine scale. It’s the differences that clinicians use to identify suspected “objects.” A mammogram is by far the go to tool for screening for breast cancer. However, occasionally it’s not clear if the object is cancer or just differences in density of healthy tissues. This is where the “gamma-camera” comes in and where nuclear physics again plays a role.

A Gamma-Camera- from Nuclear Physics to Breast Cancer Detection?!!

Nuclear physics experiments that are done at labs such as at Jefferson Lab need detectors that can detect high energy particles like gamma-rays. In fact, scientists at Jefferson Lab made use of new types of detectors developed for experiments and found they could make great gamma-cameras for detecting breast cancer. Feeling that this new type of technology could help doctors find breast cancer, they applied to the United States Patent and Trademark Office and were awarded patents. These patents were licensed by a small high-tech Newport News company called Dilon Technologies, Inc. Jefferson Lab assisted in the transfer the technology to help develop a new type of gamma-camera designed specifically for breast cancer detection. Dilon produced their first product known as the Dilon Camera and sold hundreds around the world. So, you can see what’s in it for you: thousands of moms, sisters and daughters, maybe even one of your own, have been helped by nuclear physics and the way that physicists’ work has helped doctors take better aim at breast cancer.

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Drew Weisenberger
Chief Technology Officer
Jefferson Lab


Jefferson Science Associates, LLC, manages and operates the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, or Jefferson Lab, for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. JSA is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Southeastern Universities Research Association, Inc. (SURA).

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit