Embracing the Heat: Radiation’s Evolution in the Public Eye

by Noah Gafen

The word “radiation” has had a remarkably volatile history. Although simply a blanket term for light energy emitted by atoms or molecules, the evolution of the word’s public perception has been dramatic. Say it in the 19th century and only the era’s brightest minds would even dare to contemplate its existence. Skip ahead to the Cold War era when muttering the word would silence people who were too scared to discuss the nuclear elephant in the room. Radiation itself was nothing new, but the social frenzy around its weaponization and potential fallout during the 20th century significantly tarnished the word’s reputation. High energy waves of radiation can certainly rip through the fabric of our cells and DNA, but this characteristic could not damn them to permanent infamy. The medical field began harnessing x-rays, a potentially dangerous form of radiation, for use as a skeletal imaging tool. While the paranoia surrounding radiation was very real, nobody would bat an eye when they encountered radiation in the doctor’s office or during a sunny day at the beach. As time went by, radiation began to be used for everything from reheating your leftovers to scanning the cosmos for information otherwise invisible to the naked eye.

Now in the 21st century, the applications of radiation provide hope to people suffering from diseases previously untreatable by traditional means. As it turns out, x-ray imaging was merely the humble beginning for the use of radiation in medicine. The tech became and continues to be ubiquitous in medical practice. The successful utilization of this potentially dangerous form of energy emboldened scientists to devise more ways in which the power of radiation could be wielded to improve patient outcomes. X-rays are more dangerous than the ultraviolet (UV) radiation that people encounter when bathed in the sun’s rays. Seeing as UV light has the capacity to cause diseases like skin cancer, exposing people to x-rays comes with an even greater risk, yet the implementation of safety protocols allows us to exploit their utility. Important practices include only using x-rays when deemed medically necessary, using small doses, and protecting the subject’s body by covering them with a lead apron.

The next step has been to continue pushing the envelope. The first major development was converting linear particle accelerators into medical equipment. Appropriately referred to as LINAC, these machines produce high energy x-rays with the intent to access and kill tumors in places of the body that are difficult to probe surgically. The first treatments using this new technology took place in London in 1953. Since then the technology has been improved upon. The latest version, called the CyberKnife, was approved by the FDA in 2001 to treat any tumor regardless of its location in the body.

Still, we sought more. X-rays are powerful, sure, but they are not the most powerful form of electromagnetic radiation. That title belongs to gamma rays, and the process of making this radiation safe for human treatment was already underway as far back as 1967, with the first American hospital installation being at UCLA in 1979. Gamma rays, the same destructive force that is emitted from atomic bombs, are now at the forefront of how we treat brain tumors. The process involves affixing a cobalt-plated helmet to the patient. The helmet can be calibrated to emit gamma rays from about 200 sources throughout its surface area that all converge on the cancerous region of interest. In this way, the majority of the brain is only exposed to a small quantity of gamma rays while the tumor itself receives the cumulative energy where all the rays intersect. Amazingly, the procedure has been perfected to the point where damage from the radiation itself is exceedingly rare, a testament to how much the technology has advanced in just 50 years.

The applications of radiation can also be found in biomedical research. Radioactive isotopes are used in laboratories across the world to study the movement of molecules in the body and the reactions in which they participate. By constructing molecules using radioactive building blocks like Carbon-14 and Sulfur-35, we have learned everything from the hereditary nature of DNA to the metabolic tendencies of tumors. The beauty of these techniques is that the molecules formed are essentially the same, but give off a detectable energetic signal that can point us to the molecule’s location inside of a test tube, separating gel, or living being. Safety precautions must be rigorously followed by researchers using these materials, but that has not stopped the technology from contributing to groundbreaking discoveries within many disciplines.

Radiation itself has never changed. Whether you think of it as particles or as waves (or both), it is simply quantified packets of energy. These packets, uncharacterized until the late 19th century and feared throughout most of the 20th century, have played a critical role in medical history. It is radiation that sends messages by radio, allows us to see in color, and changed warfare forever; our world is dictated by its power. While we may have recently associated this power with fear, we now get to appreciate the beauty of when it is used for absolute good. Radiation certainly can be dangerous, but countless lives have been and will be saved by those who saw its potential.