Making antimatter and putting it to use

By Roger Highfield Antimatter is now being routinely manufactured for a wide range of purposes, from studying the constitution of the universe to fighting cancer. CERN has an antimatter factory. It makes antiprotons for building up anti-atoms such as antihydrogen brick by brick. In 2002 it successfully made large numbers of anti-atoms for the first time. The factory also makes exotic atoms in which matter and antimatter uneasily coexist. But antihydrogen and these other exotica are unruly, moving at random and annihilating almost as soon as they are made. This makes them difficult to study. Antimatter could one day be used to treat cancer. Starting in 2003, scientists working on the Antiproton Cell Experiment at CERN were the first to study the biological effects of antiprotons. They compared a beam of protons and a beam of antiprotons and found that a beam of antiprotons inflicts four times as much damage to cells as protons do. This is an encouraging result because it means that cancer patients treated with antiprotons would only need to receive a smaller dose of radiation. Antimatter is routinely used in medicine to reveal the processes of the body at work. The antimatter – in the form of positrons – is produced by a tracer molecule introduced into the body. This consists of a positron-emitting radioactive isotope linked to a biologically active molecule. The antimatter it releases is not detected directly but by virtue of the pairs of gamma rays it sends out when each positron encounters an electron. Depending on the tracer molecule, different metabolic processes can be highlighted, such as oxygen use in the brain. Antimatter can also reveal the location of tumours or molecular docking sites for messenger chemicals in the brain,
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