As a medical imaging researcher, I notice when medical imaging technologies are mentioned by popular news media or medical-themed television shows. Lately I’ve been seeing PET imaging mentioned more frequently, including on TV shows like House and Grey’s Anatomy. This probably just reflects the fact that dramatically increasing numbers of PET scans are being performed in real life in clinics and hospitals. So what is PET imaging? Funny that you ask, because I just happen to do research in this field.
In this context, PET stands for Positron Emission Tomography. During a PET scan, a trace amount of biologically-active, radioactive drug is injected into the patient’s vein. The drug localizes somewhere in the patient, depending on the metabolic properties of the selected drug. The drug then emits a positron (anti-particle of the electron), and the positron annihilates with an electron in the patient’s body. The resulting energy forms gamma ray pairs that pass through the patient and are detected by the PET scanner. These detected gamma ray signals are used to create a 3-D volumetric image or picture of the drug’s concentration in the body.
PET imaging technology is unique because it images a patient’s metabolism, whereas most other medical imaging techniques measure anatomical structure. For example, X-ray CT or MRI scans can be used to identify a tumor because they show the patient’s anatomy in detail. However, PET imaging can identify if the tumor is benign or cancerous, by measuring whether or not the tumor takes up the radioactive drug. In reality, you’d really like to know both though — detailed anatomical structure and metabolic function. Recent work has demonstrated the increased clinical diagnostic value of fusing imaging technologies based on function (e.g., PET, SPECT or functional MRI) with those based on structure (e.g., CT, MRI, or ultrasound). As a result, PET and CT scanners are now typically combined into a single gantry system, so that images can be taken from both devices sequentially during a single procedure.
Since PET measures metabolism instead of anatomical structure, it is mostly used to image organs whose size or shape does not indicate whether they are functioning properly, such as the brain or heart. It is also used to diagnose diseases that exhibit an abnormal metabolism, such as cancer.
Stay tuned this week when I discuss some Alzheimer’s research that utilizes PET imaging.