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The Tevatron: a training ground beyond particle physics

Beyond smashing together billions of protons and antiprotons over the course of its 28 years of operations, Fermilab’s Tevatron also served as a launching pad for many careers, often in fields beyond particle physics.

Ron Moore now helps operate the 17 MeV cyclotron at Mass General Hospital. The accelerator produces radioisotopes used for medical diagnosis.

Take Ron Moore, the former head of Fermilab’s Tevatron Department, for example.

This month, Moore is starting a new endeavor as a medical physicist with a joint appointment at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital in the Nuclear Medical & Molecular Imaging Division of the Department of Radiology. In his new role, he will help run a 17 million electronvolt (MeV) accelerator that makes radioisotopes used for medical diagnosis, such as PET scans, and conduct research about new imaging techniques.

Besides leaving the picturesque cornfields of Illinois for the collegiate charm of Boston, Moore realizes that he will have a few adjustments to make after working with the world’s largest proton-antiproton accelerator for the past 10 years.

“For starters, I can practically put my arms around the accelerator at Mass General,” Moore says with a grin.

Cutting your teeth on a machine like the Tevatron, however, prepares you for just about anything an accelerator might throw at you—no matter its shape, size or function.

“At Fermilab, you learn lots of accelerator skills because running a complex machine like the Tevatron is not trivial,” says Roger Dixon, head of Fermilab’s Accelerator Division. “Ron saw the technical problems, and he saw the solutions. That particular skill applies anywhere.”

The application
At 4 a.m. every morning, the accelerator at Mass General begins operating to produce Flourine-18, Carbon-11 and Nitrogen-13, the three main isotopes that the hospital uses. Once the accelerator makes the isotopes, they get transported through a pipeline in the hospital to the chemistry lab where chemists prepare them for the specified medical procedure. The isotope is then transported to imaging, where it will either get injected into the patient’s bloodstream or inhaled as part of a gas.

Mass General is currently one of 300 hospitals in the United States that has an in-house accelerator to produce medical isotopes for diagnostic procedures, including bone scans, gastrointestinal studies and cancer detection. Medical physicists like Moore keep the accelerators running on a daily basis in order to supply the hundreds of medical isotopes that are needed for patients every day.

“You’re running the accelerator every day for patients. Uptime is very important,” Moore says. “The focus is on running and not to set a record store, like it was at the Tevatron.”

When inside the human body, the isotope emits positrons—the opposite of electrons. When a positron hits an electron, it gives off energy and a detector tracks its movement and location to create an image that doctors use to diagnose disease and select effective treatments. Different isotopes have different purposes, and chemists can combine them with substances that aid in the diagnostic process.

When looking for a tumor, for example, chemists will combine Flourine-18 with a sugar to make the isotope go to areas of high metabolism in the patient. Because tumors have very high rates of metabolism, Flourine-18 laced with sugar will go right to that spot and illuminate it.

Prior to joining Mass General, Ron Moore was the head of the Tevatron Department at Fermilab.

The runner
Moore first became interested in medical physics when he needed to have a bone scan last December.

An avid runner, Moore started experiencing chronic pain in his shin. With the help of an isotope, a bone scan revealed the source of his pain—a small fracture in his tibia.

“I have always been interested in medical applications and how accelerators can be used for direct benefits for society,” Moore says.

A longtime member of the CDF experiment at Fermilab, Moore also brings decades of particle detector experience to Mass General and will work on medical imaging research.

For example, the medical physics community is actively working to develop real-time imaging using PET scans during proton cancer therapy treatments. Moore hopes to apply his background in high-energy physics detector development and electronics to the real-time imaging efforts.

And now that Moore’s tibia is all healed, when he isn’t running the accelerator, he’s hoping to find time to run along the banks of the Charles River, getting to know his new town.