Saint John Regional Hospital to get first PET/CT scanner in Atlantic Canada

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Eight diagnostic tests in 14 days. That is what a New Brunswick retired teacher had to endure several years ago as physicians searched for the primary site of her malignant melanoma. When this testing still did not produce the answers they needed, they progressed with available options – interferon, chemotherapy and more. When she completed her course of treatment, the patient decided to launch her own investigations about her cancer. As a result of that research, she began questioning her oncologists about having a PET/CT scan. The closest available equipment was located in Sherbrooke, Quebec, so she made the trip and underwent a scan. In October 2001, she received the “all clear” and her husband says, “she enjoyed the first good night’s sleep in two years.” One scan – versus the dozens of invasive tests and treatments – has given her the same all clear results several times since.

Convinced of the benefit of this technology, the Government of New Brunswick has approved the operation of a PET/CT diagnostic scanner at Atlantic Health Sciences Corporation (AHSC). The Saint John Regional Hospital Foundation, has launched a campaign to raise the $4.5 million necessary to purchase and install the powerful PET/CT scanner at the hospital. The technology merges Positron Emission Tomography with Computed Tomography (PET/CT). This effort will bring to the Saint John Regional Hospital a technology that represents a giant leap forward in terms of diagnostic capability and monitoring of treatment effectiveness. Specifically, the PET/CT’s vivid and highly precise images will help ensure earlier, more accurate diagnoses, more effective treatment and care, and enhanced learning and research capability.

Positron Emission Tomography (PET) uses low grade radioactive material that is injected into a patient’s blood stream to study the function of an organ or tissue. For cancer studies, glucose is combined with the radioactive material. The glucose concentrates in areas of high metabolism – cancer tumours. When a PET scan is completed, a highly defined image is produced and any tumours literally “light up.” A PET scan in combination with a CT scan, further illustrates the tumour and the precise location is shown in an astoundingly accurate image. The combined imaging allows physicians to locate, assess and study tissue and organ functioning at a cellular level with incredible precision.

Dr. Brian Wheelock, AHSC Chief of Medical Staff indicates that “the truly amazing images possible with a PET/CT scan will change the way we practice medicine and have a significant impact on patient care.” Lives will be saved as a result of earlier and more precise diagnoses and, as a result, New Brunswickers will benefit from more effective treatments and care. As an example, the percentage of sensitivity in assessing lung cancer with a CT scan alone is 57 per cent but when combined with a PET scan, the percentage of sensitivity reaches 84 per cent. Incredibly in assessing breast cancer recurrence, the percentage of sensitivity using only a CT scan is 56%, but when combined with a PET scan, the percentage is 100 per cent. Because of the remarkable accuracy in determining a malignant or benign growth and in identifying its precise location and spread, the PET/CT technology is used for oncology purposes more than 70 per cent of the time.

PET/CT will change conventional cancer care in four out of ten cases and will help save more lives, however Dr. John Whelan, Clinical Department Head of Diagnostic Imaging at Atlantic Health Sciences Corporation, indicated that the “technology is not only invaluable in cancer diagnosis. The technology has applications in cardiology, psychiatry and neurology, as well as in the diagnosis of dementias.” PET/CT images can help physicians determine the most appropriate treatments for cardiac patients by identifying healthy heart tissue and helping determine the likelihood of restoring damaged heart tissue. In terms of the brain, whether identifying regions responsible for seizure or evaluating the progression of diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s, PET/CT imaging is significantly impacting care and treatment.

The stories of success using this technology are abundant. The PET/CT technology had a drastic impact on the treatment of a young 14 year old from Montreal who was diagnosed with an osteo-sarcoma tumour in his femur. Physicians originally recommended conventional treatment – shrinkage of the tumour with chemotherapy followed by amputation of the leg. However, the young man’s pre-op workout to determine if the cancer had metastasized to other organs revealed a very surprising result. His PET/CT scan showed no evidence of tumour activity at the primary site – his leg was spared and two years later, the young man remains cancer free.

The PET/CT technology is another addition to Atlantic Health Sciences Corporation’s commitment to innovation, leadership and the provision of the best possible care and service to patients. The technology is scheduled to be available in September 2006. For information on making a donation to the PET/CT Challenge, please contact the Saint John Regional Hospital Foundation at 506-648-6400.