A Diagnostic Monster's Cost May Soon Be Cut By Half

In medical circles, the technology of the moment for studying body functions is positron-emission tomography (PET). A$6 million tomograph measures gamma rays given off when radioactive sugars are absorbed by tissue. Used on heart patients, for instance, such pictures give doctors a better idea than other means whether bypass surgery is needed. But the machines are so expensive that few hospitals have them. The high cost is due partly to a 22-ton cyclotron in the PET that makes the radioactive sugars by ripping positively charged particles, called positrons, off oxygen or nitrogen atoms. The radioactive compounds then are injected or inhaled.

Now, PracSys Corp., a Woburn (Mass.) startup, hopes to halve the cost of PET by replacing the cyclotron with a cheaper, 1,200-pound "accelerator." In the cyclotron, two giant magnets control an ion as it is spun in a circle to gain energy. At peak energy, the ion is shot into an oxygen or nitrogen atom, emitting positrons during the collision. PracSys's system uses a nine-foot-long tube to boost an ion's energy and smash it into the target. The company expects demand from hospitals to surge when its first model debuts within two years.

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