IN the mushroom-clouded dawn of the Atomic Age, dark as it was with fresh dangers for the human race, there shone a ray of brilliant promise; the sudden abundance of radioactive elements gave medical researchers their most important new tools since the invention of the microscope. For five years now, physicians and biochemists have been learning to handle them.
How much progress have they made?
The short answer is that they have wrought no miracles. Atomic medicine has cured no disease that cannot be cured without it. But in five years there has been time to explore only a fraction of the new frontier—and meanwhile there have come discoveries in three directions that are worth cheering about:
TREATMENT: radioactive iodine, phosphorus and gold are effective in half a dozen diseases, though in no more.
DIAGNOSIS: radioisotopes of iodine, sodium and potassium have already proved helpful in appraising several disorders of body chemistry, e.g., in cases of heart and kidney disease, to help establish the kind of treatment the patient can stand. Other isotopes are helpful in locating brain tumors.
STUDY OF BODY FUNCTION: with "tracer" doses of dozens of radioactive elements, medical researchers are beginning to learn things they never knew before about how the body, sick. or well, performs some of its incredibly complex chemical processes. Biochemists will be busy for many years in this field. Eventually their knowledge should lead to better ways of treating a host of diseases, and probably to new ways of curing some.
Iodine Is Unique. So far, about the only evident cure that atomic medicine can claim is with radioactive iodine in severe cases of Graves's disease (overactivity of the thyroid gland). For these, it is as good as other drugs or surgery, and probably better. Until radioisotopes began to be made (in cyclotrons) in the '303, doctors were able to use only "external radiation"—X rays from an assortment of machines—or the closely related gamma rays given off by radium as it decays to lead. But the thyroid picks up any isotope of iodine in a greater concentration than any other part of the body by a factor of 100 or more t01. So radioactive iodine (known as iodine-131 from its atomic weight)*was the answer to the radiologists' dream: it supplied internal radiation in a highly selective way. As the iodine crowded into the^thyroid of a victim of
Graves's disease, its disintegrating atoms destroyed the-overactive tissue.
Nothing could have been neater—and nothing could have led to more disappointment. For, inevitably, researchers began to hunt for other elements which would localize equally well in a particular part of the body. They found none.
However, they found another valuable treatment use for radio-iodine. Cancer of the thyroid is not a common disease, and most cases do not yield to radio-iodine.
But 15% to 20% of the time, the thyroid-cancer colonies which spread through the body behave like little thyroid glands and pick up radio-iodine. Such a case was that of Norman Bennett.