Research on PET scans at the DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory. <em>Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory</em>
Science & society
The needs of science drive innovation, which fuels industry, which delivers more powerful tools to basic research.

Research on PET scans at the DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory. Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory

From the earliest days of high-energy physics in the 1930s to the latest 21st-century experiments, the bold and innovative ideas and technologies of particle physics have entered the mainstream of society to transform the way we live.

CASE STUDY: Particle physics and medical imaging

The time is the mid-1970s, and the medical profession has come up with a new concept for imaging brain metabolism. The idea sounds like science fiction: by arranging for antimatter to annihilate harmlessly in the body, producing photons detectable outside the body, doctors could trace brain function with a precision never before imaginable. How to turn this dream into reality? Step forward the particle physics community.

Detecting photons is all in a day’s work for particle physicists, so it was natural for the two communities to team up to produce some of the first positron emission tomography, or PET, scanners. A collaboration between CERN and Geneva’s University Hospital did just that, delivering a new diagnostic tool to the hospital while also developing powerful research techniques.

Fast forward one decade. A new generation of particle physics experiments develops a new generation of photon detectors, building on the work of academia and industry. These “scintillating crystals” have spurred advances in particle physics. And a new generation of PET scanners.

Take another 10-year leap. Scintillating crystal technology is still advancing, but more importantly a big collaboration preparing for physics at the LHC decides to use crystals inside a powerful magnetic field. The requisite electronics do not exist, so the collaboration teams up with industry to make it. Result: a yet-more-powerful tool for basic research and an opportunity for the medical imaging industry to develop a scanner combining the complementary techniques of PET and magnetic resonance imaging, MRI. Our final leap forward through time brings us to the present day, when clinical trials of such a device are now under way.

This case study, one of many, illuminates the circle linking basic research and society. The needs of science drive innovation, which fuels industry, which delivers more powerful tools to basic research. This long-term relationship, nurtured over decades, has a proven track record of delivering knowledge and innovation.