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100 Cyclotrons Smashing Atoms to Fight Disease

cyclotron1Last December, the 100th GE MINItrace cyclotron was delivered to the Institute of Nuclear Chemistry at the University of Mainz in Germany.

It might sound like a device from science fiction, but a cyclotron is an essential tool for clinicians to look at how certain diseases progress and develop in the body.

The cyclotron is actually a particle accelerator, much like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland that is trying to recreate the conditions of the big bang by smashing particles together at near-light-speed.

But rather than demystifying the universe, the MINItrace is being used to help fight some of the toughest diseases of our time, such as cancer and Alzheimer’s.

The cyclotron accelerates particles to create specific radioactive isotopes. These isotopes are then combined with compounds designed to bind to certain molecules in the body, essentially tagging the metabolic activities of disease with radioactivity.

These radioactive tags emit gamma rays, which are detected by PET (Positron Emission Tomography), allowing clinicians to observe metabolism in action as the labelled molecules pass through the body.

The ability to see how diseases work at the molecular level is allowing scientists to understand them more than ever before, and devise new ways to fight them.


Bronze plate at the entrance of the Institute of Nuclear Chemistry at the Mainz University honoring Meitner, Hahn, Strassmann and Frisch for the discovery and interpretation of nuclear fission. Above: GE Healthcare’s MINItrace cyclotron.

“Prof. Rösch and his team at the Mainz University have unique competencies and experience in investigating the properties of non-standard PET isotopes”, said Erik Strömqvist, Cyclotron & TRACERcenter General Manager at GE Healthcare. “The compounds based on these new isotopes could have an important impact on the characterization and diagnosis in different disease areas. We look forward to supporting and following the great work Mainz University will do with the 100th MINItrace in advancing Molecular Imaging in Germany and globally”.

The machine was nicknamed “Lise Meitner” in honor of the Austrian physicist of the same name. She had worked with Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman at the Kaiser Wilhelm Chemistry Institute in Berlin before emigrating to Sweden in July 1938 to flee events that would eventually lead to World War 2.

Hahn and Strassmann discovered nuclear fission of uranium on December 17, 1938, and together with her nephew Otto Robert Frisch, Meitner added the theoretical explanation to this discovery two weeks later.

After the war, Strassmann established the Max Planck Institute of Chemistry in Mainz and became the director of the Institute of Inorganic and Nuclear Chemistry at the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. He managed to install a research nuclear reactor(TRIGA Mainz) that Hahn took into operation in 1965. With the University of Mainz receiving the GE MINItrace cyclotron – which is made in Sweden, the country that became Lise Meitner’s new home – you could say that the scientific journey has come full circle.

More Information

MINItrace Cyclotron 

GE Healthcare Announces Next-Generation Small Cyclotron and PET Tracer Production Solution to Enable Increased Access to PET Imaging