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What is a Radiopharmaceutical?

According to Dorland's Medical Dictionary, a radiopharmaceutical is a radioactive pharmaceutical, nuclide, or other chemical used for diagnostic or therapeutic purposes:

  • Diagnostic radiopharmaceuticals may help diagnose medical problems.

  • Therapeutic radiopharmaceuticals may help treat certain types of cancer and other diseases.

When used for diagnostic purposes, a radiopharmaceutical passes through — or is taken up by — an organ of the body. Then, imaging equipment will detect that radioactivity. That will help the doctor make a diagnosis based on the obtained images.

For instance, rubidium Rb 82 is used to help diagnose heart disease. After injecting the patient with it, a positron emission tomography (PET) scan is performed. The obtained images will allow the doctor to look at the heart and see how much blood is flowing when resting or exercising.

When used for therapeutic purposes, the radiopharmaceutical is taken up in the cancerous area to destroy the affected tissue. Images are generally taken later to assess progress or lack thereof.

For instance, sodium iodide I 131 is used to treat hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid) and certain types of thyroid cancer. After taking it by mouth, the radiation will help the thyroid gland return to its normal activity. It may also be used after thyroid cancer surgery to destroy any remaining diseased thyroid tissue — or to destroy thyroid cancer that has spread to other tissues.

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