Brookhaven National Laboratory's chemistry building receives a special designation Friday for the role researchers there played in the 1970s producing a breakthrough way to visualize sugar metabolism in the brain and cancerous tumors.

The American Chemical Society's New York division is designating the building a Historic Chemical Landmark, based on a major advance by Brookhaven scientists that led to the development of positron emission tomography, or PET scanning.

Last year, the chemical society similarly honored Stony Brook University's chemistry department because it was the site of research that led to the development of the MRI.

At Brookhaven, the designation renews a sense of pride among scientists a generation later.

In 1974, Brookhaven scientists embarked on a project that culminated two years later in the development of a highly specific radioisotope that forever changed what scientists could learn about the brain and cancer.

The human brain is often said to be the most complex entity in the known universe. It is a voracious consumer of glucose, its primary fuel. Tumors, likewise, gobble glucose at an accelerated rate.

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Brookhaven scientists developed the isotope known as fluorodeoxyglucose, or FDG, also called a radiotracer.

FDG is a chemical analog of glucose, which means it's a compound that is structurally identical to glucose, but with the exception of one important component. In this case, a form of radioactive fluorine with a brief half-life takes the place of a hydrogen atom on a glucose molecule.

Development of the radiotracer makes PET visualization possible in real time. FDG generally is infused into a line from a saline drip that is connected to a patient's vein. Brain cells and malignant tumors metabolize FDG, causing them to light in brilliant color on a scan.

"I've been here for many years," said Joanna Fowler, a senior chemist at Brookhaven Lab. "And I participated in its [FDG's] development in the early 1970s.

"I've seen how useful it has been in understanding the brain and in the diagnosis of cancer," she said.

She said ADHD, drug addiction, Alzheimer's and epilepsy are a few conditions that PET scanning has helped researchers better understand.

Fowler noted that Brookhaven wasn't alone in the development of PET scanning. The collaborative effort involved scientists at the University of Pennsylvania and the National Institutes of Health.