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Dr. Michael Phelps and PET

  • By Dave Greenwald
  • Published Jul 10, 2000 8:00 AM

The development of Positron Emission Tomography (PET) — the first technology for actually imaging brain function — has revolutionized the field of nuclear medicine, providing a safe and effective way of identifying disease that other methods are unable to detect.

A PET scanner is a camera that produces powerful images of the body’s biological functions, revealing the mysteries of health and disease. In PET, chemicals are injected into the bloodstream that are “labeled” with trace amounts of radioactive elements. As these elements disintegrate in the bloodstream, they interact with electrons in the body, sending signals back to the PET scanner, which takes real-time pictures of the biological processes of all the organ systems in a single examination. The result in the brain, for instance, is vivid images of blood flow and how it changes during different behavior.

The first such “brain camera” was created by Dr. Michael Phelps and his colleagues in 1973 at Washington University in St. Louis. In 1976 Phelps came to UCLA to build the world's leading PET program. He established the PET clinic for patient care at UCLA, the first of more than 800 clinics worldwide. Phelps is now chair of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology at UCLA.

PET technology has significant benefits for patients. Nationwide, there are 7.4 million Americans with a history of cancer, and 1.3 million new cases are diagnosed each year. For them, PET provides one of the most effective means to diagnose and stage their disease, giving physicians important information to help guide them in their treatment decisions.

For his work to develop PET, as well as for a lifetime of achievement in the field of nuclear medicine, Phelps was named by President Clinton a winner of the Enrico Fermi Award, the government’s oldest science and technology prize.

“I am as enthusiastic about PET today as I was at its inception,” says Phelps, who also is director of UCLA’s Crump Institute of Biological Imaging, associate director of the UCLA/DOE Laboratory of Structural Biology and Molecular Medicine and chief of nuclear medicine. “In fact, more so. Biology and genetics are producing revolutionary changes in medicine. PET is providing biological-imaging exams to help detect, understand and treat disease as part of this new molecular medicine.”