Nuclear technologies are making sizeable contributions in human health. Radio therapy, for example, is one of the most effective cancer therapies known. Stable and radioactive isotopes are deepening our understanding of human biological processes. Nuclear applications in nutrition are becoming potent weapons for improving health among many communities of the developing world.

The cost-effectiveness of most nuclear technologies is high, and many IAEA Member States have now established medical and health care programmes involving nuclear tools.

Nutritional Foundations for Growth

Almost two billion people worldwide suffer from chronic under nutrition due to a lack of essential protein, vitamins and minerals. The results are poor growth, impaired mental development, low disease resistance and reduced work capacity. Through nutrition projects in more than 30 countries, the root causes of malnutrition are being explored, providing data on nutrient requirements and testing sustainable interventions. Developing countries are gaining access to nuclear-based tools that are not only safe and easy to use, but also provide precise answers that serve as a basis for sound nutrition improvement strategies.

Stable isotopes are used to measure the special energy and protein needs of population groups, such as farmers with high energy requirements, pregnant and lactating women, and infants and children. Isotope techniques can also detect and help to devise better ways to treat the “hidden hunger” of vitamin and mineral deficiencies, such as night blindness cause by insufficient vitamin A and anaemia due to a lack of iron.


One achievement has been in transferring radioimmunoassay (RIA) in vitro diagnostic technology to developing countries. RIA uses radioisotopes and antibodies to measure biochemicals in the blood, and allows the fast and accurate diagnoses of conditions such as hepatitis, insufficient growth hormone and hypothyroidism. Some RIAs can even detect “tumour marker molecules” of certain types of cancers.


Some body organs absorb certain chemicals more readily than others; thus a radiopharmaceutical can be “tailored” to target a certain organ. Inside the body, the chemical can be detected by a gamma camera, and multiple images for doctors can be assembled into a 3-D image on a computer screen. This technique, called ‘single photon emission computed tomography’ (SPECT), allows clinicians to detect and treat abnormalities, often long before changes can be revealed through other tests.
SPECT is being used in many countries to improve the diagnoses of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, cerebrovascular disease and even trauma.


Radiopharmaceuticals to relieve pain in those suffering from bone diseases are being optimised. Current treatment uses Strontium-89, which not only relieves pain but may also reduce new pain sites. But Strontium-89 is expensive, and so two other radiopharmaceuticals, Phosphorus-32 and Samarium-153, which cost one-fifth of the amount, are being investigated through trials in Asia, Central Europe and Latin America.

Better Odds in Cancer Care

There has been a dramatic increase in cancer cases worldwide, especially in industrialised nations. The number of new cases is expected to climb to 15-million by the year 2015, and roughly two thirds will occur in the developing countries, where the average life span is quickly increasing.

About half of all cancer patients today receive radiotherapy as part of their treatment. Radiotherapy, combined with surgery, and to a lesser extent, chemotherapy, will remain the most important curative treatment for most cancer tumours, with radiotherapy used in up to 60 percent of all patients in some countries.

Thanks to improved therapies, most cancers can be cured if detected early enough.

Environmentally friendly Sterilisation

Commercial sterilisation of medical products using gamma rays began in the United States in 1956. Today, millions of tonnes of one-time use products, ranging from scalpels to syringes, are being sterilised in more than 200 facilities in 50 countries. Radiation kills disease-producing bacteria without leaving a residue. Penetrating radiation allows products to be sterilised on-line, in bulk and in their final packaging. Irradiated products are not radioactive, and they can be used straight from the treatment unit.

Most importantly, radiation is environmentally friendly. Heat sterilisation is very energy-intensive and many products cannot withstand the high temperatures. Ethylene oxide gas (EtO) sterilisation may leave behind carcinogenic residues and requires a nine-week quarantine period. A sterility test is also required after heat and EtO sterilisation to confirm their effectiveness.

In Europe, radiation is used to treat about 50 percent of the total disposable medical products and its use will expand to a large extent in many IAEA Member States in the near future. The possibilities for sterilising hospital waste using radiation are also being investigated.
Human tissue is an important medical resource. If tissue is lost from the body as a result of burns or an accident, surgeons can often repair the damage if human tissue is available. But grafts must be sterile to avoid cross-infection. The safest, most reliable way of sterilising human tissue is gamma irradiation. It also allows tissue to be sterilised in a pre-packed form, safeguarding patient health.

Creating Biomaterials

Radiation can immobilise bioactive materials such as drugs and hormones on polymers. This property is employed in some new drug-delivery systems, including an eye insert that releases medicine to combat glaucoma and an implant that controls the release of prostaglandin for the treatment of ulcers. The use of irradiated polymers to prepare “smart” systems that will actually link sensors to drug delivery is also being investigated. This could revolutionise the treatment of diabetes in millions of sufferers.








11 - 15 March 2018
Munich, Germany


30 September - 04 October 2018
Prague, Czech Republic