Converting Energy to Medical Progress

BER Medical Sciences

The Office of Biological and Environmental Research (BER) is part of the Office of Science in the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). The Medical Sciences Division of BER manages the nuclear medicine research program,which pursues two main areas of scientific investigation--Imaging Systems and Radiopharmaceuticals.

Imaging Systems: Future Scanners and Detectors

To provide accurate and clear images of very specific biochemical activities targeted by radiopharmaceuticals, BER scientists are designing more sensitive detectors and scanning equipment. In addition, advanced data acquisition, image processing, mathematical, computer, and engineering techniques are in development to measure extremely small amounts of a radiotracer more accurately anywhere in a patient's body.

Radiopharmaceuticals: Future Molecular Probes

There are hundreds of possible radionuclides and thousands of potential carrier molecules to explore living body functions or to provide radionuclide therapy. The key requirement for an effective carrier molecule (e.g., a protein, hormone, antibody, fatty acid, neurotransmitter, DNA, RNA, etc.) is its ability to probe a specific biochemical process. BER researchers are developing radiopharmaceuticals that have increased "functional specificity."

Bringing the Human Genome to Life: Nuclear medicine can visualize biochemistry of Genetic Diseases

Defects in genes may cause about 5,000 hereditary diseases, such as Parkinson's disease, cystic fibrosis, Huntington's disease, sickle-cell anemia, diabetes, and cancer. It's possible that most diseases have a genetic factor since genetic instructions control how all cells, normal and abnormal, function.

BER nuclear medicine is developing methods to study beneficial or harmful genetic changes with molecular probes for three targets:

  • Altered DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid)
  • Altered messenger RNA (ribonucleic acid)
  • Abnormal cell or organ function induced by altered DNA.

BER scientists have successfully created images of genetically altered organ function in animals (see UCLA). Now, BER Medical Sciences has initiated exploratory research to develop new messenger RNA-based radiotracers for dynamic imaging of gene expression in animals in real time. In the future, drugs may be custom-made for individual patients based on genetic "fingerprinting." Nuclear medicine will play a crucial role in this pursuit.

Next: Today's BER Research Leads to the Nuclear Medicine of Tomorrow


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Published April 2001

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