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How physics revolutionises medicine

Posted August 20, 2014

When most people think of medical breakthroughs they probably don’t think of physics.

On 20 August at a Sydney Science Forum for National Science Week Associate Professor Kuncic reveals the many contributions of physics to modern medicine and provides a tantalising glimpse of the next generation of breakthroughs it will underpin.

“At the University of Sydney we are developing nanoparticle based technologies to enable cancer imaging and therapy to be done at the same time. We’ll also be able to much more effectively treat cancer that spreads to inaccessible parts of the body,” said Associate Professor Zdenka Kuncicfrom the University’s School of Physics and Charles Perkins Centre.

“Many people would not connect physics with driving groundbreaking advances in medicine and biology but, just as with our current nanomedicine research, it has been crucial to many medical advances.

“Probably the biggest impact physics has had on our society is the creation of new medical technologies. The very first Nobel prize in physics was awarded for the discovery of X-rays which led to the discovery of the DNA double helix, the invention of the CT scanner and the development of cancer radiation treatment.”

The discovery of antimatter in 1932 led to the development of a unique medical imaging technique, Positron Emission Tomography (PET), that has enabled early detection of diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease.

“Quantum physics and the discovery of superconductivity led to the development of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI), which creates exquisite images of the human body and has opened up astonishing new insights into brain function,” said Associate Professor Kuncic.

“Now nanomedicine, where nanoscale particles and devices deliver medicine directly to disease cells, is changing the landscape of modern medicine. On nanoscales, of between one and 100 nanometres with a nanometre measuring a billionth of a metre, the properties of matter are completely different from what we are used to. On these incredibly small scales the relative strength of forces is different and reactions occur more quickly than with normal scales of measurement.

“Our research team is working with Harvard University to develop novel nanoparticles that target and kill prostate cancer cells that have spread to surrounding bone. With conventional techniques, this is extremely difficult to treat. With these nanoparticles, we can also develop imaging probes that will enable us to see where the drug is going to while we deliver it, which we can’t do now. This is the future of cancer treatment.”

Professor Kuncic is a research theme leader at the Charles Perkins Centre and Director of the Advanced Computing Facility for Cancer Research in the Institute of Medical Physics.

Motivated by her strong interest in technology and knowledge transfer, the research program she leads uniquely bridges conventional discipline boundaries between physics and biomedical science to drive advances in medical imaging, radiation biophysics and nanotechnology in medicine.

Source: University of Sydney

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