Curatorial collecting – new radioactive tracer machine

One of the best parts of a curator’s job is collecting new objects. It can sometimes feel like a daunting task but occasionally serendipitous circumstances lead to a great acquisition.

A member of staff from GE Healthcare was visiting the Science and Art of Medicine gallery of the 5th floor of the museum and noticed that their company had recently developed a new updated version of a piece of kit. Fortunately for us, they offered us a model for the Museum’s collections.

Model of a Technetium-99 generator by GE Healthcare

Model of a Technetium-99 generator by GE Healthcare (© GE Healthcare)

The generator produces a radioactive version of the element Technetium-99, used as a tracer in the body. Radioactive tracers are used in nuclear medicine. This is the use of radioactive isotopes to diagnose and treat illness. The radioactive element is injected, swallowed or inhaled and the progress is tracked using a gamma camera or a PET scanner. The radiation received from a tracer is comparable to that of an X-ray.

PET Scanner ( Wellcome Images )

Non-radioactive tracers have also been used to image the body. Early versions of tracers include a barium meal drink used with X-rays to show up the guts.

Barium 'Shadow Meal', 1981-595/1 (Science Museum, London)

One of the most commonly used tracers is Technetium-99. One of the problems is that Technetium-99 has a half-life of only 6 hours. So it is transported with a longer lasting isotope Molybdenum-99. Once at the hospital, the isotopes can be separated. This is done by injecting a saline or salt solution which leaves the molybdenum absorbed on the aluminium columns inside.

The designers at GE Healthcare worked in collaboration with hospital staff including radiographers to find out their needs and come up with a design solution. The model has won design awards from the Design Business Association and has also reduced its carbon footprint in the process.

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