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Nuclear pharmacy is a highly specialized field, and only a select few colleges offer specialized training that meet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requirements. Many of you might be wondering what exactly nuclear pharmacy is and what it takes to become one.

In 1978, nuclear pharmacy was established as the first pharmacy specialty by the Board of Pharmaceutical Specialties. A nuclear pharmacist’s job is to improve and promote health through the use of radioactive drugs for therapy and diagnosis in nuclear medicine procedures.

Before we go any further, we need to take a step back to talk about radioactivity. It is easy to freak out when you hear or see the word radiation, because we often associate it with danger. There is electromagnetic radiation emitting from the sun everyday, from the radio and TV in our homes, from the radars to track airplanes, and visible light. In the field of nuclear pharmacy, they deal with a type of radiation called radionuclides – an atom with an unstable nucleus. There are two classes of radionuclides – natural and artificial, or man-made. The type of emission given off by the nucleus determines whether the radionuclide will be able to treat a patient. They use a small number of radioactive materials that have a known type of emission. This tags the source to a compound localizing in a specific area of the body and the compound carries the material to the desired site. They perform this using a gamma camera, which is a specific detection device that makes it possible to detect emissions given off radioactive materials and it creates images of the source in the patient’s body.

Large hospitals were able to use pharmacists with radioactivity training, but smaller hospitals did not have the staff or the resources to do this effectively; therefore, in the 1970s, centralized nuclear pharmacies were introduced. After they were completed, they were the drugstores for the department of nuclear medicine. When certain radioactive materials were needed, a trained nuclear pharmacist would prepare and dispense a “prescription” in liquid or capsule form, unlike traditional pharmacists preparing and dispensing prescriptions in tablets or capsules. Also unlike traditional pharmacists who would give the prescription to the patient in need, a nuclear pharmacist would send the material to a hospital or clinic to be given to the patient.

Each product must be tested after being prepared and dispensed since it involves on-site compounding. When the purity of the material is verified, it becomes ready to be used for patients. Nuclear pharmacists are also qualified to give drug information to health professionals, to help nuclear medicine staff in product selection, and help in the interpretation of unusual studies.  

These schools offer nuclear pharmacy courses in the United States:

  • Temple University – Philadelphia
  • State University of New York At Buffalo – Buffalo
  • University of Oklahoma – Norman
  • Medical University of South Carolina – Charleston
  • Ohio State University – Columbus
  • Purdue University – West Lafayette
  • University of New Mexico – Albuquerque
  • University of Utah – Salt Lake City

Not every school of pharmacy offers courses specializing in nuclear pharmacy as you can see from the short list above, but there is a couple of schools in each region of the U.S. that offers these courses, so if you’re interested, you do have enough options to choose from. Now you know what a nuclear pharmacist is, the basic information on how it works, and what schools in the United States offer nuclear pharmacy courses. Next time you think of radioactivity, remember that radiation does not always mean danger. It can help save lives and cure a multitude of diseases.