“Hot stuff” on tour

Hot Stuff’ was a public engagement stand at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2018, led by a team of researchers from the School of Biomedical Engineering & Imaging Sciences, King’s College London, about how radioactivity can be used to detect, monitor or treat human diseases. Two years on, one of the team, Maggie Copper, shares how she has been taking elements of the successful stall around the country to continue engaging other public groups on how radioactivity is used for cancer care.

Maggie engaging community group members at local church, Wirral, Merseyside

Our ‘hot stuff’ exhibition has been on tour ‘up north’ to Merseyside as I took the activities into the school my kids attend in Liverpool and also gave a presentation to a community group who meet in our local church on the Wirral…

I work part-time as a post-doctoral research fellow in the department of Biomedical Engineering and Imaging Sciences at King’s College London. My work involves getting exciting new radioactive drugs that are developed in the laboratories into real patients in the hospital.  

I also already help with some science classes in the school with Year 8 and Year 10 students. The first topic I helped with happened to be radioactivity for GCSE students and I saw how some students struggled with the concepts of half-lives and types of radiation decay so I suggested bringing the ‘hot stuff’ activities to the school as a bit of an introduction to the topic of radioactivity for year 7 and 8 students.  

Originally designed for the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2018 in London by my colleagues (supported by the Wellcome EPSRC Centre for Medical Engineering), the ‘hot stuff’ activities show how radioactivity is all around us, how radiation is used in medical imaging and how we can use radioactivity to treat diseases such as cancer. 

After the success of the presentation in the school, I decided to take it to a community group on the Wirral that my husband and I help with in our local church. Several of the people who attend the group have medical problems that have required imaging of one kind or another so the presentation was relevant and informative to them. 

Radioactivity is all around us 

People are often scared of radioactivity but actually radioactivity is all around us and it’s really about getting things into perspective. So, to demonstrate this we played a game. The idea is to put some common everyday objects in order of how radioactive they are. Actually, two of the items aren’t radioactive at all but the others are to a greater or lesser extent, radioactive. I’m not sure if the kids or the adults group enjoyed this more but it was pretty competitive even though the prize was just a slightly over-ripe banana!  Just for fun, this is the list of items that they had to put in order. 

  • A banana 
  • A smoke alarm 
  • An old watch – the type that has a glow in the dark dial (not needing light to make it glow) 
  • A rubber duck 
  • A packet of brazil nuts 
  • A packet of Lo-Salt salt 
  • An apple 
  • A rock – demonstrating part of Cornwall 

Nobody got them all in the right order – but then again neither did I when I had a go at this game as a guinea pig to test it out last summer! 

However, what it does demonstrate is that radiation is all around us and, in fact, it might be more dangerous to be an airline pilot, exposed to cosmic rays on long haul flights, than to be a scientist working with radioactivity every day.  

Radioactivity can be used to image disease 

We talked about how we can attach a radioactive isotope to a drug so that the drug goes to the area of the body that we want to image so that we can work out whether there is a problem or not. Images taken this way have some advantage over other methods of imaging such as ultrasound, X-rays, CT and MRI in that they can give an idea of how well a particular part of the body is functioning rather than just giving a picture. We talked about how nowadays different ways of imaging were being combined so that we had really useful cameras that can take radionuclide images at the same time as CT or MRI images (PET/CT, SPECT and PET/MRI) and make it much easier for doctors to make a diagnosis. 

Whole body fused PET and CT image of a patient with prostate cancer. This image shows multiple areas of abnormal 18F-fluoride uptake throughout the skeleton (red/yellow spots) indicating spread of the cancer to these sites. Whilst the extent of spread of cancer is large, the uptake would predict that this patient should respond well to targeted radionuclide treatment, such as 223-Radium Chloride

In order to better demonstrate this, we used some aprons which have the different organs stuck onto them. I was particularly impressed that the children were able to correctly identify the different organs in the body like the lungs, the liver, the heart, the trachea etc. The aprons had been specially modified so that in one organ on each apron there was a small radioactive source inside. 

When patients attend the clinic (in the Nuclear Medicine department) they are injected with a small amount of a radioactive drug and then they are imaged under either a gamma camera or a PET camera. We used radionuclide detectors to work out where the radioactivity was in the body in the same way as the doctor would look to see where the radioactive drug was in the patient. It was great fun trying to work out which organ was radioactive by scanning each other with the detectors. 

Radioactivity is used to treat disease 

We then talked a little bit about diseases such as cancer and how normal cells in the body could go bad but how we could use a different type of radioactivity to treat these diseases. We talked about how there were often markers on the surface of cancer cells that made them look slightly different from normal cells and how we could use drugs to specifically target these differences in the cells. We could then make these drugs radioactive with a radioisotope which could kill the cancer cells. 

There were loads of questions especially from the children in the school but also some interesting questions from the community group, some of whom had had scans in the Nuclear Medicine department in the hospital. It was great that as a result of the talk and activities they seemed to have understood what the scan was about, how the radioactive drugs could detect the medical problem and what the images meant.  

An introduction to the topic of radioactivity to Year 7 & 8 school students (12-14 years old)   

The children really engaged in the activities and I hope that it got some of them thinking about the field of Nuclear Medicine where a range of different professionals (doctors, nurses, physicists, technicians, radiographers, pharmacists) work side-by-side and where scientist in universities are working hard to try to develop new radiopharmaceuticals to diagnose and treat patients.  

Feedback from parents was very positive with many telling me how much their children had enjoyed it although they had become a bit fed up with hearing for the millionth time that bananas are actually radioactive! The community group were also really appreciative and were keen to take away the information cards. 

Year 7 & 8 school students use a Geiger Counter to try to detect which organ contains the small radioactive source (stitched inside) on the modified apron to help understand how radionuclide detectors work when imaging radioactivity in patients to detect disease   

This was a great experience for me to take my work and talk to ‘real’ people about it. I would highly recommend others having a go at this and just getting out there and letting people know about the interesting work that we are doing. The enthusiasm of the children was amazing and so rewarding. I was overwhelmed by their questions and how interested they were in everything that I talked about. 

The ‘Hot Stuff’ exhibition showcased at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition 2018 and the ‘Hot Stuff on Tour’ activities were both supported and funded by the Wellcome EPSRC Centre for Medical Engineering within the School of Biomedical Engineering & Imaging Sciences, King’s College London.

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