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New Technique to Fight Prostate Cancer: IAEA organizes first-of-a-kind training for Radiopharmacists


For the first time, radiopharmacists from across Central and Eastern Europe learned about an emerging technique in treating prostate cancer at an IAEA course organized at the National Centre for Nuclear Research in Poland last month.

Radiopharmaceuticals are a crucial component of nuclear medicine – used for both diagnosis and treatment. They are radioisotopes bound to biological molecules, able to target specific organs, tissues or cells within the human body. Diagnostic radiopharmaceuticals are used to detect tumors and other health problems, while therapeutic radiopharmaceuticals destroy cancerous cells, improving palliative care or curing the patient – depending on the stage of their cancer.

Radioisotopes emitting beta particles – high-energy electrons – have been the most commonly used form in radiotherapy treatment for more than half a century. However, new research and clinical trials have recently demonstrated that the application of alpha particles – two protons and two neutrons – can be more efficient in destroying cancer cells, thanks to their higher charge and mass, while sparing healthy tissue. They are used in the treatment of prostate cancer, which is the second most common type of cancer in men in the region. Prostate cancer accounts for 15% of cancers diagnosed in men globally, with almost 70% of the cases (759,000) occurring in more developed regions, including Europe, according to GLOBOCAN.

“Alpha particles have a shorter traveling range in living tissue and that is why they provide a better choice to specifically irradiate the target cells, which are usually in the range of micrometers,” said Amirreza Jalilian, a chemist at the IAEA Division of Physical and Chemical Sciences and the organizer of the workshop.

Fifteen radiopharmacists, including nine women, from Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Turkey and Ukraine participated in the five-day training. Senior experts from the IAEA, the Joint Research Centre - Nuclear Safety and Security Directorate in Karlsruhe, Germany and the European Association of Nuclear Medicine gave an overview of the latest technological advances in this field. Their presentations were followed by instructions and training on how to use these techniques.

“None of us have worked with alpha-emitting radionuclides before and for many it was also the first time working with pure beta-emitting radionuclides. Gaining this experience will help me in my work,” said Dana Niculae, a radiopharmacist at the Horia Hulubei National Institute for R&D in Physics and Nuclear Engineering in Romania.

Alpha particles have a shorter traveling range in living tissue and that is why they provide a better choice to specifically irradiate the target cells, which are usually in the range of micrometers.
Amirreza Jalilian, chemist, Division of Physical and Chemical Sciences, IAEA

Hitting the target

One of the main difficulties in alpha therapy is to place the alpha emitter adequately close to the target cancerous cells in order to cause the desired damage, Jalilian said. This challenge has been addressed by attaching the radioisotopes to specific targeting agents, biological molecules that can enter the cell – carrying the radioisotopes along. Ensuring the constant and guaranteed supply of alpha emitters requires international cooperation and will be the topic of an IAEA meeting in October.

“Therapeutic radiopharmaceuticals have seen a fulminant development in recent years with a high clinical impact for oncological patients. This workshop was a great opportunity for professionals from several Eastern European countries to get exposed to the most recent advances in targeted therapies with alpha and beta emitters. It was an important step towards clinical implementation of this novel, cutting-edge technology,” said Clemens Decristoforo, Professor at the Medical University of Innsbruck.

The IAEA is planning to organize similar workshops in different regions. Recent IAEA coordinated research projects have been key instruments in transferring this technology to less advanced countries.

This is just one of the many ways nuclear technology is used to improve human health and quality of life – and will be one of the subjects discussed at November’s IAEA Ministerial Conference on Nuclear Science and Technology.

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