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Neutrons may spotlight cancers

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6:44pm, August 17, 2004

Doctors often image patients' tissues using X rays, magnetic resonance imaging, or various other approaches. A new experiment suggests that scans by beams of fast-moving neutrons may someday join the ranks of diagnostic-imaging tools.

Tumors often accumulate elevated concentrations of elements such as calcium and zinc. By making patterns of these elements visible, neutron scans could potentially reveal aberrant cellular function even before the smallest tumor forms, says Carey Floyd Jr. of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C.

When an energetic neutron strikes an atom, it causes the nucleus to emit a gamma ray of a wavelength that's specific to the element. In a test of the feasibility of imaging elements in this way, Floyd and his colleagues depicted a slice of a set of bars containing either copper or iron. By stacking such slices, a scanner could create a three-dimensional picture.

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