Last Tuesday evening I visited a local university to watch presentations about application of Physics in Medicine. Although I do not study Physics at school myself, I understand the importance of all specialties of science working together for the most successful healthcare team. I found the evening extremely insightful as I learned about imaging and technology to improve diagnoses.
The first speaker did a presentation about X-rays, explaining their history with the first X-ray unit being set up in 1896 by Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen. I learned that X-rays work by material with larger atomic mass attenuating the beam more and therefore leaving a thicker shadow. X-rays are extremely important to see internal structures as before they were discovered, doctors would make incisions in the body even though there were no antibiotics and therefore a high risk of catching a disease. X-rays are most commonly used to image fractures, chest diseases, mammography and dental imaging.
The speaker also talked about Computed Tomography (more commonly known as ‘CT’) scans and that it is a 3D scan made up of many combined images. In the future, contrast agents will be used to target specific cell types to locate tumours and to determine whether they are benign or cancerous.
The second speaker talked about nanoparticles for cancer treatment and the balance between giving a lethal dose of radiation to tumour cells whilst sparing healthy tissues. I learned how radiation can lead to formation of tumours. If someone’s cancer is caused by radiation, energy is absorbed by the area that will be affected, the cells are ionised and free radicals are formed which are extremely reactive (H+ and -OH) and cause DNA, chromosome or cell cycle damage, causing a tumour. The speaker’s own research was into fluorescent-labeled antibodies to locate and quantify breaks in the DNA double strand – a very helpful tool that could be used to find a cure for cancers caused by breakage of DNA.
I found the third and final talk the most interesting, where the speaker talked about nanoparticles in tissue engineering, for example for growing organs. This would be extremely useful as there is a shortage of donors of organs so by engineering organs from our own cells we could reduce demand and the problem of matching tissue types. She talked about the five things needed to grow a tissue culture; isolating a cell from a patient by biopsy, allowing the cell to multiply, in a scaffold, allowing it to grow into the scaffold, then inserting it as an organ into a patient. The part of her talk that particularly interested me was about Carbon Nanotubules – a synthetic material that is a scaffold used to house a growing tissue culture before being inserted into a patient as an organ. It is an extremely lightweight, strong and highly conductive material allowing it to stimulate cells to contract and expand and letting blood flow. The fact that it is so strong may mean it can be used to reconstruct bones in the future. This is an extremely exciting discovery that may be used in the near future to build organs from one cell of a human body.