Did you know that nuclear science and technology play a big role in improving human health? This relationship has a long history, dating back to the discovery of X-ray imaging in the late 1800s. Today, nuclear techniques are even more diverse and can address even more health issues, from helping keep us healthy to treating disease.
For example, nuclear techniques can prevent the spread of infectious diseases by helping track animal diseases before they transfer to humans. Scientists have used nuclear-derived techniques to detect new strains of avian influenza in Asia, and they use isotope techniques to track the movement of animals that carry diseases so that illnesses can be contained before a human outbreak occurs. Transmission of insect-borne diseases, like the Zika virus, may also be reduced by using radiation to sterilize male mosquitos and lower their populations.
When diseases do spread from animals to humans, vaccines can be developed using irradiation techniques, such as in the case of the malaria and influenza vaccines. And when humans get sick, nuclear techniques can diagnose the cause; for example, in cases of Ebola in West Africa and COVID-19 around the world. Nuclear-derived techniques are also used to treat hereditary and genetic diseases in humans. Polymerase Chain Reaction, or PCR, techniques diagnose diseases like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, various forms of cancer and Down syndrome. X-ray imaging, sometimes in parallel with a tool called a radiopharmaceutical tracer, can determine the extent of damage a disease has done to a person’s body. And nuclear techniques play a critical role in fighting cancer, as radiotherapy is used to kill carcinomic cells while keeping healthy cells intact.
And of course, good health starts with proper nutrition. While malnutrition remains one of our greatest global health challenges, plant breeding programs use radiation to create new, higher-nutrient, and higher-yield crops, and nuclear isotope techniques are used to determine how the body absorbs vitamins and minerals. This same technique is valuable in examining the effectiveness of different diets as well – for example, in the Philippines, isotope analysis was used to determine how dietary fat affected vitamin A absorption in school children. And X-ray imaging can be used to evaluate how well efforts to combat malnutrition are working, including how feeding practices can improve bone growth during fetal and child development.
Such nuclear techniques play a key role in keeping people and animals healthy around the world. Promoting access to peaceful uses of nuclear energy, science, and technology is a key aspect of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) serves as a key facilitator in the development and delivery of the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, science, and technology. The United States strongly supports the IAEA’s work to improve human health using nuclear technologies, contributing more than $18 million through the IAEA’s Peaceful Uses Initiative since its establishment in 2010. Working together, we can build a healthier world.
About the Author: Dr. Janet Chen is a Contractor in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, and was an AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) Science and Technology Policy Fellow.