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New Device Could Lead to Better Cancer Outcomes

Graduate student Will Gerding.According to the National Cancer Institute, approximately 39.6 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer over the course of their lifetime. In the United States cancer is responsible for roughly 171 out of every 100,000 deaths. The number of patients living beyond a cancer diagnosis is on the rise, however, thanks to ever-improving treatments.

Radiation therapy, or radiotherapy, has become increasingly popular, with an estimated 60 percent of cancer patients in the US receiving it at some point. The JDRD team headed by Eric Lukosi, assistant professor of nuclear engineering, proposes to improve those treatments through the creation of a microfluidic device. This device will integrate with the treatment apparatus and measure dosage and purity in addition to removing steps from the measuring process.

“There have been experiments performed using actinium-225 and bismuth-213 that show they are extremely effective at radiotherapy,” said Will Gerding, the graduate student supported by Lukosi’s JDRD project. “One of the downsides of that is to make sure you have the right ratio you need to do gamma spectroscopy in a separate device. That makes the process a bit longer and causes the bismuth, from radioactive decay, to become less effective.”

When actinium decays it eventually becomes bismuth—specifically, the isotope of bismuth needed for radiation treatments. One of the ongoing challenges with these treatments is ensuring that the bismuth is making its way into patients but the actinium is not. Currently, gamma spectroscopy is used to assess the purity of the treatment.

In order to conduct the gamma spectroscopy, the solution must be taken from the dispenser to a different location and processed through multiple steps before being put into a vacuum for the final spectroscopic analysis. The process requires a great deal of time, during which the bismuth may decay past its effective stage before it can be examined.

“If you could just push it through my microfluidic sampler, that would remove a lot of steps there—so it would be a time- and cost-saving measure for radiochemists analyzing samples,” said Lukosi.

Lukosi’s JDRD work has a number of potential applications, including environmental sampling and nuclear nonproliferation.

“There is actually a whole host of applications for this technology. I originally thought of the idea for nonproliferation for pyroprocessing, which is electrifying spent nuclear fuels,” said Lukosi. “So when someone says he removed two tons of plutonium out of this fuel, how do we know that it was really two tons? Is he taking grams at a time over years to sell to terrorists?”

Lukosi’s device would be able to provide accurate and detailed measurements of the contents of the fluids that pass through it. That precision would make it a useful tool for researchers in a number of fields, including medical treatment.

Working with his ORNL partner, Senior Research Scientist David DePaoli, will provide Lukosi an opportunity to test the device on the actinium/bismuth generating system they are building.  With positive outcomes, this UT-ORNL partnership could potentially increase the number of patients outliving their cancer diagnoses in future generations.