• (6 of 7)

    Because carbon occurs in nearly all the thousands of chemicals in the body, carbon-14 is the most widely useful tag in the isotope catalogue. Sometimes the tag can be hung on easily in the laboratory; sometimes nature has to be called in to help with "biosynthesis." In a fifth-floor laboratory atop a pseudo-Gothic building on the University of Chicago campus, intense researchers are growing common foxglove—in Pyrex cylinders filled with radioactive carbon dioxide. They harvest the leaves and make radioactive digitalis.

    Foxglove tea was an old wives' remedy for heart cripples hundreds of years ago; 170 years have passed since Withering gave the treatment medical respectability. Doctors know that digitalis goes to the heart, but they want to know how long it stays there and how it is broken down into other compounds. The Chicago team has found out that digitalis stays in the system much longer than had been thought; next, they hope to learn in far greater detail how it works, and how the body ultimately disposes of it. They are also growing radioactive belladonna to make radioactive atropine, and white poppies to give morphine an atomic kick.

    In the last analysis, it is vastly more important to know what goes on in the body's individual cells than in the body as a whole. One noted cancer researcher says that there is properly no such thing as "cancer research"—only study of the life processes of cells. For, once the normal life processes are better understood, it should be but a step to find out wherein the life of a cancer cell differs from that of a normal cell, and another step or series of steps to find a way to eliminate the difference.

    Throughout the U.S. (as in Canada and Britain and Western Europe), eager researchers are grasping for every usable tool they can find in the atomic kit. So far, of over a thousand known isotopes (many of them stable) of 98 elements, at least 60 radioactive forms have been tried in medicine and research. In the U.S., the Atomic Energy Commission is backing more than 300 research projects by private institutions in medicine and biochemistry, and there are many more, under security wraps, in AEC's own labs. And the nation's hospitals and universities themselves are sponsoring hundreds of projects.

    The Elementary Precautions. Atomic medicine is far from the stage where a general practitioner down the block can look at a patient, reach into a lead-lined safe, pull out a shielded syringe and inject a radioactive isotope. Probably that stage will never be reached; even medically safe doses can be highly dangerous if carelessly handled. Wisely, the AEC has laid down strict rules to cover the distribution and use of its products. Before anyone may use an artificial radioisotope,*he must tell the AEC what he wants to use it for, how he intends to use it, what he hopes to show, and give evidence that nobody in his laboratory will be endangered. If the applicant wants to work on humans, he cannot get his radiant atoms until his answers to these questions have been considered by the AEC's Subcommittee on Human Applications of Isotopes (known affectionately in the trade as the "Subhuman Committee").

    1. 1
    2. 2
    3. 3
    4. 4
    5. 5
    6. 6
    7. 7