A new £4.5 million cancer unit will be opened at a Birmingham hospital today by Britain's cancer tsar Professor Mike Richards.

At the heart of the Positron Emission Tomography (PET) Centre, at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital - run by the University Hospital Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust - is a £1.5 million full-body scanner.

The high-tech machine can pinpoint cancer tumours and trace their development. Although they are widely used across Europe and the United States, there are only six PET scanners in the UK.

The QE's machine is the first to be located outside London on the British mainland.

Before the scan, patients are injected with flurodeoxyglucose - which contains a tiny amount of radioactive material - that is attracted to cancer cells.

It is particularly sensitive to small cancers, such as lung cancer and lymphoma, which are not easily seen on conventional imaging. During the 30-minute scan, an operator monitors computer images in a observation room.

Overlapping images from PET and CT scans pinpoints where tumours are located in the body and how widespread the cancer has become.

The CT scan, a black-andwhite anatomical image, is placed over the PET scan which uses colour to highlight cancerous tissue and 'working' muscles.

Unlike standard techniques such as X-rays and MRI scans, which show body structures like bones and tissue, the PET scanner can highlight chemical and physiological changes in body function.

Medics believe this technology will enable them to better plan how they treat cancer patients.

Chris Boivin, the trust's head of nuclear medicine, said: "This is cutting-edge technology which will make a real difference to how we plan and deliver treatment to cancer patients.

"The UK is well behind the rest of the developed world, in terms of access to these scanners, because the NHS only began investigating it in

"As well as enabling us to plan patients' treatment, it will prevent people being sent for 'curative' surgery when the cancer has spread throughout their body.

"For those patients palliative care is much more suitable rather than a major operation."

Mr Boivin began using a "poor man's" PET scanner at the hospital in 1997, which cost just £120,000, which made clinicians aware of the potential benefits.

In October 2003, a publicprivate partnership with Alliance Medical led to the


provision of a mobile PET scanner at the QE, while a permanent site was built.

Mr Boivin added: "With a PET scan alone, it is often difficult to work out exactly where the tumours are.

"By adding a CT scan at the same time, tumour location can be seen with a greater degree of accuracy, guiding biopsies, surgery and radiotherapy.

"The three main cancers most effectively targeted by PET scans are lung, colonrectal and lymphomas, but there are many others which can be identified this way.

"This technology can also be used for patients in cardiology and neurology, but evidence shows it works best on cancer patients."

In December 2003, Prof Richards, the Governmentappointed national cancer director who is in charge of cancer provisions in the UK, vowed to make the high-tech scanners available for all patients on the NHS.

A second PET scanner may be included in the plans for the trust's "super-hospital" which is being built on the QE site.