How Are Radioisotopes Used in Medicine?


Quick Answer

Ninety percent of radioisotopes in medicine are used for diagnostic tools, according to the World Nuclear Association. Nuclear medicine uses radioisotopes to see how organs function, to sterilize medical equipment and to fight cancer cells in the body. Bones, thyroid glands, hearts, livers, kidneys, lungs and the brain are common organs and areas that use radioisotopes to image and diagnose problems.

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Full Answer

Diagnostic techniques with radioisotopes utilize tracers that emit small amounts of gamma radiation that appear on images. The World Nuclear Association explains that these images are enhanced by computer programs and three-dimensional graphics. Nuclear medicine that measures gamma ray emissions in organs is useful in that soft tissue can be seen, whereas radioisotopes in X-rays only see bones.

Common radioisotopes used in diagnostic tools include technetium-99, iodine-131 and cobalt-60. PET scans use oxygen-15, carbon-11, nitrogen-13 or fluorine-18, according to the Nuclear Science Division of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Technetium-99 was used in 40 million procedures in 2012, with 16.7 million of these in the United States alone.

The World Nuclear Association notes that the United States had 20 million radioisotope procedures in 2012. Radioisotopes were valued at $4.8 billion in 2012, and the market is expected to rise to $8 billion in 2017. North America accounted for more than half of the radioisotope market in 2012, and Europe handled 20 percent of the market in that same year.

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