Going Nuclear: a look at the SNMMI annual meeting

Going Nuclear: a look at the SNMMI annual meeting

by Neil Thompson, Patent Agent & Writer

Physicians, pharmacists, technologists, and industry personnel all descended upon San Diego June 11 – 15, 2016 for this year’s annual meeting of the Society for Nuclear Medicine and Medical Imaging (SNMMI). SNMMI’s influence spans many areas, including education, best practices development, and advocacy. In existence for over 60 years and 17,000 members strong, SNMMI and its members are heavily involved with developing imaging techniques for noninvasive diagnoses of diseases. Going into the meeting, I knew nothing about nuclear medicine or medical imaging.  Over the next few days, I received quite the education.

Nuclear medicine involves introducing small amounts of radiotracer to the body to diagnose diseases. The radiotracer consists of carrier molecules bonded to a radioactive atom. The carrier molecules typically have an affinity for a specific sugar or protein in the body. When the carrier molecules come in contact with that sugar or protein, the radioactive atom emits radiation. External cameras capture the radiation and provide molecular images of the radiating area.

There’s a lot of interesting research going on in the nuclear medicine field. For instance, Belgian researchers are looking into new therapies to treat alcoholism. They imaged the brains of recently sober individuals and those with no alcoholic history. They found that the recently sober test subjects had lower metabotropic glutamate receptor subtype 5 (mGluR5) availability. mGluR5, found in certain areas of the brain, has been implicated in causing cravings and addictive dependency. The brains of the recently sober were essentially shutting down mGluR5 receptors, hindering the recovering alcoholics’ desire to relapse. Based on their findings, the researchers believe that mGluR5-targeted therapies to treat alcoholism are on the horizon.  

A highlight of the meeting was the talk given by Robert Dannals, PhD, recipient of the Michael J. Welch Award. Dannals, professor of radiology and Director of the PET Center at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, spent an hour regaling the audience about his exploits from the time he finished his studies to present day. He worked under Dr. Henry Wagner, the original director of the PET center who is revered in nuclear medicine circles for his contributions to the field. Dannals had to travel to Sweden to study how to operate a cyclotron, which would eventually be shipped to Johns Hopkins. The cyclotron is responsible for producing the radioactive atoms used in radiotracers. Dannals worked in the PET facility for several years before Wagner was ready to retire. He shared with the audience that he wasn’t Wagner’s first choice to head the PET center upon his retirement. The first choice was unable to accept the post. Dannals quipped, “one person’s misfortune is another person’s gain.”

The meeting wasn’t just research, though. A lot of companies exhibited at the meeting, too. GE, Siemens, Philips, Toshiba – they were all there with hulking booths showing their wares. Most of them had working model CT and MRI scanners on display.

Ever wanted to test your knowledge of nuclear medicine? Well, meeting attendees got that chance at the Knowledge Bowl. In a Jeopardy-style competition, several groups were asked to identify the conditions shown in PET, CT or MRI scans. Have you ever looked at a MRI scan? It’s amazing what an expert can determine by looking at them. All I see are shadows!

All the talks and poster presentations were very intellectual, enough to make your brain hurt a little (at least mine). SNMMI must know this, since the organizers had drawings along the walls complete with markers. Attendees could leisurely color in the drawings while admiring the stunning San Diego ocean view. A great mind relaxer, that’s for sure.

SNMMI knows how to take care of its meeting’s attendees, too. Each day of the conference featured a different pick-me-up snack during the early afternoon lulls. Cookies on Sunday. Ice cream bars on Monday. Coffee on Tuesday. What’s not to like?

For someone who came into the meeting as a blank slate, I think I can now have an intelligent conversation about nuclear medicine. Cancer, cardiovascular disease, lung disorders, lymphoma. Nuclear medicine is used in diagnosing all these diseases and many more. That’s probably how I’d start the conversation!

SNMMI – San Diego welcomes you anytime. Don’t forget the ice cream bars. For more information on SNMMI, visit snmmi.org.

Neil Thompson is a writer, patent agent, and notary public among other things. You can read his musings on his blog “I’m not an expert. I’m just a guy who likes to think about stuff…” at neilithompson.com.

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