Spotlight On Simon Joseph, Cyclotron Engineer

He works with electrons, protons, and neutrons, but Simon Joseph's focus is on the patients

March 12, 2021

When a patient is injected with a radioactive drug before a scan at the PET center on 168th Street, that radiotracer was most likely created a couple of floors down from the scanner— starting with a cyclotron. Our cyclotron engineer, Simon Joseph, joined the Columbia University PET Center in 2003 and has been making radiotracers for almost twenty years.

These tracers help with cancer diagnosis and evaluation of cancer treatments by collecting in areas of the body that have higher levels of chemical activity—which often correspond to areas of disease—and creating bright spots on a scan. They are also widely used for human and animal research.

Making radiotracers involves many detailed steps, checks, and double-checks. Throughout this process, Simon keeps one thing in mind: the patients who will benefit from the compound he is creating. These are people he never actually meets.

Simon also developed and runs a program which brings public school kids to the PET Center for educational tours.

What's a typical day at the PET Center for you?

We get our schedule for the next week on Friday. Sometimes I'm doing paperwork, sometimes it's training, and sometimes it's a production run, which means I'm making a radiotracer for a patient. If I have a production run, I don't know the patient's name, but I know it's a patient.

How do you do a production run?

I start the whole process at least two hours before the dose is injected into the patient. The first thing I do is make sure the machine is up and whatever I need is available.

Then I follow the batch record, which is like a recipe. The batch record might say I'm making an F-18 tracer. That batch record is going to get me from the beginning to the end. It has 30 to 40 pages of production, quality control, and quality assurance.

To make F18 we start with O18 water in the cyclotron. The particle accelerator fires protons at the O18, which transforms it into the radioactive isotope F18. We call this irridation time. The length of time that we leave the beam on O18 water is determined by the compound we're making for that patient. Most of the time it's a 40 or 50 minute run.

Then it goes to the synthesis unit through small transfer lines. Synthesis involves taking the F18 and attaching it to a particular compound, depending on what is ordered. The labeling happens in a complex synthesis unit.

Then it goes to quality control (QC), and a different person has a process for checking the radiotracer to make sure there are no endotoxins or bacteria. Finally, it goes to quality assurance (QA), and yet another person evaluates the whole process from beginning to end. Once it passes QA, that's it. It goes to the patient.

During every step of the way, we do extensive checks. That's the detail part of what we do. That's the part that can make or break somebody. If you skip a step, or don't verify one little detail, the run could fail, and the patient doesn't get their dose.

Is there a different process if the radiotracer will be used for research?

No. If the run is for research, the animals get the same treatment as the patients.

You've compared your job to your years in the Navy. How are they similar?

In the military you're fighting to protect the country. You learn to go above and beyond to get the job done. Here, you go above and beyond for the patient.

The patient may have gotten on a plane or travelled. I don't know how old this person is or how many family members are counting on this. The patient may not know what disease he has or she has, and this dose that's injected will help find out. One day I may be there and need the same service.

You regularly bring public school kids in for tours of the facility. Why?

I just want them to see that it exists. What they do with the information, that's on them.

I grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and we had these engineering programs in the sixth, seventh, and eighth grades. It was called the Connecticut Pre-Engineering Program. We'd go to  competitions and I would drop the egg from the roof and do the battle of the robots. We'd never win anything, but began soldering and making my own robots. That's what led to what I'm doing now.

Your oohs and ahhs always come when you're younger. You get fewer oohs and ahhs later on in life. What we do here is very exciting.

What do you like most about your job?

It's the end goal. I'm creating something that gets validated to help or to figure something out. I'm starting with atoms and neutrons and there are several reactions. There's the reaction that happens in the cyclotron. Another one happens in the synthesis unit. And the last reaction happens in the patient.

I don't find out what happened to the patient. That would give me full enjoyment. I don't get that satisfaction, so I take satisfaction from the fact that QC was complete, we made it on time, and the patient was injected.

I love my job. There's never a time I don't like going to work.