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Tomas Diaz de la Rubia

Tomas Diaz de la Rubia
Associate Director for Chemistry and Materials Science

Calling All Nuclear Scientists

EXPERTISE in nuclear science, particularly in nuclear chemistry—the study of the inner workings of radioactive atomic nuclei—is at the heart of much of the research described in the article entitled An Inside Attack on Cancer. Nuclear chemistry has been an area of scientific expertise at Livermore since the day the Laboratory was founded, when scientists needed to understand the behavior of fission and fusion products to design nuclear weapons. Today, weapons scientists put that understanding to work to maintain the country’s nuclear stockpile, using extremely large computers and laboratory experiments in the absence of full-scale underground testing.
We have a continuing need for well-trained nuclear chemists for stockpile stewardship, but universities are graduating very few of them these days. What’s a national laboratory to do? One solution is to train nuclear chemists ourselves, from a pool of capable young scientists we attract to the Laboratory.
Fascinating, state-of-the-art research projects, a few of which are described in this issue’s lead article, help draw prospective future nuclear chemists. Livermore chemists and others are designing molecules that can be tagged with a radioactive isotope to deliver deadly radiation straight to cancer cells that have spread throughout the body. A new detector under development uses the same radioisotope-tagged molecules to reveal the location of cancer cells. Meanwhile, scientists using a revolutionary type of mass spectrometry are witnessing, for the first time, how isotopes interact with human cells. Finally, Laboratory scientists are combining Livermore’s storehouse of data on nuclear science and radiation transport with the power of the supercomputer to create MINERVA, a tool for analyzing and planning targeted molecular radiation treatment for cancer patients. The development of MINERVA follows the successful commercialization of PEREGRINE, a similar hardware and software tool for planning radiation beam therapy.
Nuclear chemists are also contributing to programs in nonproliferation and homeland security to meet Laboratory mission needs in a changing world. Scientists are being called on to detect tiny amounts of radiation and to manage the consequences of a radiological event.
The Laboratory has long been at the forefront in the development of many kinds of chemical, biological, and radiological detectors, both large and small, whether permanently installed or handheld. Today, two new handheld devices make use of entirely new technologies for detecting gamma radiation.
Laboratory scientists are also seeking ways to measure the body’s response to a small dose of radiation, as described in the article entitled Cells Responding Uniquely to Low-Dose Ionizing Radiation. With a better understanding of the effects of radiation on living tissue, medical personnel will be able to measure the dose received and intervene before individuals become sick and die. In effect, the human body would become a walking, talking dosimeter. The same collection of dosimetry data that has made PEREGRINE so successful in treating cancer with radiation beams is being brought to bear on this low-dose research.
With so much demand for nuclear chemists and so few university programs supplying them, Livermore must create its own experts. Helping to detect and cure cancer may seem far removed from keeping the nation’s nuclear stockpile safe and secure or responding to the demands of homeland security. In fact, the cancer research not only addresses an important national health issue but is also an effective tool for training nuclear chemists to confront national and worldwide security concerns.

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UCRL-52000-03-7/8 | July 18, 2003