The Wales Research and Diagnostic Positron Emission Tomography Imaging Centre (PETIC) provides researchers and doctors with a far greater ability to detect malignant tissue and track the effects of drugs in incredible detail. They operate one of the most advanced PET imaging facilities in the UK.
Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans are unique because they provide functional information which can be very sensitive for detecting small sites of disease anywhere in the body. The facilities are used to diagnose and characterise a range of diseases, particularly cancer, and in some cases to then monitor the effects of treatment and recovery. Both of these aspects are being used to help streamline and enhance the testing of new medicines.
The centre currently provides research scans for multi-centre and commercial trials, pre-clinical and radiochemistry research as well as a clinical service to the Welsh NHS, and most private healthcare providers. PETIC commenced a routine imaging service for the Welsh NHS in September 2010 and now scans more than 2,300 patients a year.
To perform a scan, the PETIC team first create a tracer by tagging a pharmaceutical with a radioactive atom that will emit a positron over the next few minutes. (A positron is an antimatter particle, and rarely found in nature!). In many facilities, tracer production occurs in the private sector, so it is significant that PETIC is able to make its own tracers within Cardiff University.
The tracer is then injected into the patient, and the scanner detects the radiation caused by the positron emission. Cancer cells take up the tracer more than healthy cells and the signal can be displayed in a three-dimensional image. Anatomical information is obtained at the same time using a computed tomography (CT) scanner. Combining both functional and structural images into a fused PET/CT image leverages the power of techniques to help in diagnosis.
PETIC serves a population of 2.4 million people across south-and mid-Wales. The centre is based in the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff. PET imaging centres are often based in non-acute settings, but being based at Wales’ largest hospital can help for patients who need other specialist care here, for instance cardiology or paediatrics.
The Wales Cancer Research Centre has recently recruited Dr Nick Morley who is a Consultant Radiologist at PETIC. In addition to supporting the clinical service there, Nick has helped us develop a team to assess the use of PET scans for patients with brain tumours and applied to UK charities who might be able to support that work.
Despite being relatively rare, primary brain tumours and their terrible outcomes have a disproportionate effect on society, causing more ‘years of life lost’ than cancer from any other site. Dr Morley said, “Many patients deteriorate and die in a number of months, at a relatively young age. Brain cancer can affect thinking, personality and driving, with big collateral impacts on carers and family. We believe that using a PET tracer could help assess the extent of disease and its response to treatment, leading to more tailored treatment strategies and chemo-radiotherapy trial designs that can adapt to patient needs.
“I grew up in Scotland and trained in Edinburgh and Oxford, and it has been really exciting to work in PETIC for the last couple of years. We have enjoyed settling in Monmouthshire and trio siarad Cymraeg! The medical infrastructure in Wales has great possibilities and the support of the Wales Cancer Research Centre has already enabled me to grow a new branch in the network of Brain Tumour researchers.”
PETIC is eager to work with university researchers and biotechnology companies to develop and test new drugs and tracers for cancer research and other settings too. The centre naturally brings together opportunities for a wide selection of science skills and backgrounds, ranging from subatomic particles to people, all with the aim to improve patient care and health.