Undergraduate and PhD students and researchers from UTNBA participated in ARPET, a National Atomic Energy Commission (in Spanish, CNEA) project, through which they built the first positron emission tomographer entirely made in Argentina.
Eng. Ramiro Rodríguez Colmeiro, UTNBA-UTT (Technological University of Troyes) PhD student, and Damián Pirlo, student of the Electronics Engineering undergraduate program, were part of the project led by Eng. Claudio Verrastro, Director of UTNBA’s Artificial Intelligence and Robotics Group (in Spanish, GIAR), building a tomographer that will make it possible to obtain images non-invasively.
“It is not a conventional tomographer, like the ones used when a patient twists their ankle. These X ray tomographers provide anatomic information, for example, whether there is a broken bone or a distended tendon. In contrast, ARPET provides information on how the patient’s organs are functioning,” Verrastro explained.
“To do this -he continued- an intravenous radiopharmaceutical is administered to the patient, who is required to rest for half an hour, and then the liquid lights up like a light bulb. Since these light bulbs are the organs, we can measure the voracity of the patient’s cells for taking up sugar. The most voracious ones, that is, tumor, cardiac muscle and brain cells, take up more sugar because they need more energy. The scanner, then, is used to diagnose oncological diseases, to a lesser extent, cardiac ones, and to an even lesser extent, brain diseases such as Alzheimer.”
The director of GIAR mentioned he has led the project from the beginning “and I would like to reaffirm the original idea that manufacturing in the country is worth it. Not only because now we have a piece of equipment that is working, which is very important, but also because this project has allowed us to use new technologies. Driven by this project, we have been able to undertake other nuclear instrumentation projects, two of which are CNEA’s most important projects at the moment: an experimental reactor currently under development in Ezeiza and the first nuclear power plant in Atucha. We are nuclear instrumentation and protection system suppliers, all based on the technology we started to work on and with which we gained our experience, which was the tomographer project,” he stated.
The ARPET project began 12 years ago, when Lic. Alberto Mancini, CNEA’s Radiation Radioisotopes Manager, started to plan a nuclear medicine center in Argentina.
“This meant having a positron emission tomographer. There was an old machine we were asked to repair because the manufacturer was not offering technical support anymore and the support available was not enough because the machine kept on breaking down. But we decided not to repair it and instead manufacture a national tomographer from scratch, with a different conception. We celebrated a collaboration agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to determine the viability of the project, of this new conception (proof of principle) and, at the same time, we signed an agreement with UTN Buenos Aires for the training of human resources,” Verrastro recalled.
From the start, the team sought to build a tomographer adapted to the situation of Argentina, so that although it has six heads, it can operate with only two while maintenance is performed on the others.
The project was funded by the Argentine Treasure and, along its 12 years of activity, three generations of researchers have participated in it. Almost 80% of them came from Universidad Tecnológica.
“There are two PhD students currently in the Netherlands who won their CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) scholarship thanks to the merits and training received in the project. And there is a third member of the original team, Martin Belsunce, who is pursuing his post-doctoral degree in England, also in topics related to positron emission tomography,” the GIAR director stated.
Verrastro thanked those who participated in the project, even if they are no longer part of it: “ARPET is being developed by quite a large team, formed by the CNEA with the Instrumentation and Control group and the previous generations of UTN engineers who also participated in the project design. There were more than 30 people directly involved in the project. And in the Instrumentation and Control group there are 50 of us who in one way or another collaborated to make it a reality.”
The ARPET design was jointly done by UTNBA and CNEA, through the Instrumentation and Control Under-management of Ezeiza’s Atomic Center. Some UTNBA’s interns and scholarship holders were hired by the Commission, so they are still involved in the project.
“With National Treasure funds, through an Investment Project Bank (BAPIN), we hired various companies to, for example, manufacture the mechanical parts. The same was done for the external cover; we hired an industrial design company with which we won an Innovar Award. The electronics was entirely done at the Ezeiza Atomic Center; in the Instrumentation and Control area we have printed circuit board manufacturers and assemblers. We also have automatic assembly machines for printed circuit boards and welding machines; so the integration was done there,” Verrastro explained.
Only three international companies manufacture this type of tomographers, which have an estimated value of between 1 million and 1.2 million dollars.
“We believe that in domestic production the cost should be cut by half. Another very important cost is maintenance cost. The spare parts available must be imported and they are expensive because they are provided by the company that manufactures the tomographers. So we must hire an annual service fee, for an amount equivalent to 10 percent of the value of the equipment. By manufacturing it here, that cost should be much lower,” the project director expressed.
Verrastro also anticipated that two technology companies are interested in manufacturing the ARPET.
Although the tomographer is installed at Hospital de Clínicas, and it is the first of its type to be installed in a public hospital, it is not being used on patients yet. The project director stated that they are working so that it can be used on patients by 2019.
“We still have a lot to do so that ARPET can be used on patients. We have to characterize it and we have already obtained authorization to work on the markers used in this type of studies, so we have some months of hard work ahead. Then we will enter the stage of requesting authorization from the Argentine Administration of Drugs, Food and Medical Devices (in Spanish, ANMAT) to use it on patients,” Verrastro explained.
The GIAR director explained, in addition, that this kind of studies are very expensive, so by manufacturing the tomographer in the country, they would be cheaper and reach a larger population; “that is why we installed it in a public hospital,” he stated.
Damián Pirlo, student of the Electronics Engineering undergraduate program, has been working on the project for five years, in hardware development: “I carried out almost all the steps to assemble the tomographer and as I moved ahead in my studies, I acquired more and more skills, which allowed me to perform better in other areas,” he explained.
“I am very proud of the project –he continued-. It was a lot of work and there is still work to do. But the good thing is that we are already seeing the results, the impact that the team has had.”
Ramiro Rodriguez Colmeiro is pursuing his PhD degree in Signal Optimization jointly taught by UTNBA and UTT. In the ARPET project, he worked on the reconstruction of images captured by the tomographer: “my work consists in gathering the data and making reconstruction algorithms in order to obtain the image that the physician will ultimately see,” he explained.
Colmeiro pointed out that the most challenging part of the project was to build an unconventional tomographer: “when Claudio Verrastro proposed not to repair an old machine but to make an entirely ours new one, we sought to innovate so that it would have the advantage of being modular and more economical. Consequently, it does not work like the rest; our tomographer can spin, which is something that not all can do.”
This meant that conventional algorithms would not work in this tomographer, so the team had to develop new ones. “That posed not only an electronic and but also a mechanical challenge,” Colmeiro explained.
“The project is part of my doctoral thesis. The idea is that the tomographer will provide the data that I will later use for the segmentation part. The topic of my thesis includes part of the improvements of the reconstruction or modeling algorithms and segmentation. The goal is to generate a system which provides part of an image, which gives some additional information to the doctor,” he explained.