Hot Stuff

The Centre will be exhibiting our chemistry research at the Royal Society Summer Science festival from the 2nd to the 8th of July

Radiation is all around

Did you know that radioactivity is all around us? You are probably exposed to a range of radioactive materials on a daily basis without realising. For example:

  • Dental X-ray = 0.005 mSv
  • Chest X-ray = 0.014 mSv.
  • Transatlantic Flight 0.08 mSv.
  • UK average annual dose 2.7 mSv.
  • Living in a stone, brick or concrete building for a year = 0.07 mSv.

Another way to think about radiation is the release of energy at the particle level, and exposure to small doses is a normal part of life. On average, an adult living in the UK is exposed to 2.7 mSv of radiation annually.

Visit Public Health England to see more radiation dose comparisons.


Radiation images disease

Radiation also plays a crucial role in modern healthcare, by helping doctors identify disease progression, activity and function at the molecular level. Cancer patients are injected with trace amount of radioactive material which has been tailored to be attracted to specific types of cancer or disease functions.

Once injected, patients will be scanned using a PET or SPECT scanner with a CT attached. This is a hybrid type of imaging technology which enables clinicians to see not only the anatomy (through CT) but the functional activity (through positron emission tomography or SPECT) at the molecular level,in real time.

Whilst traditional CT scans may be able to detect the location of a potential tumour, PET/CT or SPECT/CT improves on this by providing additional information on how active tumour cells are, allowing treatments to be tailored to the individual patient and avoiding the need for unnecessary biopsies. These radioactive tracers are also able to indicate early-on whether a treatment is working or not, allowing doctors to response accordingly.


Radioactivity can treat disease

Radiotherapy is used as part of treatment regimen in around 40% of cancer patients. Radiotherapy damages cells either by completely obliterating the cell or by damaging the DNA in cells, which holds all the information a cell needs to survive. This means radiotherapy can stop cells from growing or spreading in the body.

There are 2 main types of radiotherapy known as external beam radiotherapy or molecular radiotherapy.

External Beam Radiotherapy

External beam radiotherapy is the most common type of radiotherapy, and a linear accelerator (LINAC) is the device most commonly used for treatments of patients with cancer. The linear accelerator is used to treat all parts or organs of the body. It delivers high-energy x-rays or electrons to the region of the patient’s tumour.

Photon, Electron or Proton beams can be used under external beam radiotherapy and have different benefits and drawbacks.


  • Pro: accurate killing of tumour
  • Con: need to know where tumour is, can’t do this for tumours spread throughout the body, damages healthy cells too


  • Pro: accurate killing of tumour, little effect on healthy cells
  • Con: Only skin-deep, need to know where tumour is, can’t do this for tumours spread throughout the body.


  • Pro: accurate killing of tumour, little effect on healthy cells
  • Con: need to know where tumour is, can’t do this for tumours spread throughout the body. Not many centres in the UK can provide this treatment.

Molecular radiotherapy (MRT)

Molecular radiotherapy requires the patient to receive radiotherapy injections, capsules or drinks, also known as radioisotope therapy. The isotope and isotope attached to a tumour-targeting drug enters the bloodstream and goes to the tumour where the unstable atoms shake off energy in the form of particles, electrons and waves. The particles and electrons are a very effective in causing complex damage to cells, making it harder for the cancer to survive and return.


Want to learn more?

Our researchers will be showcasing their work on radiation at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, 02 – 08 July 2018. The event is free and open to all – visit our event page to learn more.