U of A cyclotron can produce steady supply of medical isotopes

Researchers from the University of Alberta have come up with a way to use a cyclotron to produce the medical isotopes needed to diagnose certain health conditions, like cancer and heart disease.

Scientists can produce enough isotopes for up to 1,000 diagnostic procedures per day

Researchers from the University of Alberta's Medical Isotope and Cyclotron Facility can produce enough medical isotopes to supply the province's demand. (University of Alberta)

Researchers from the University of Alberta have come up with a way to use a cyclotron to produce the medical isotopes needed to diagnose certain health conditions, like cancer and heart disease.

The cyclotron is a particle accelerator that can produce technetium-99m, a radioactive tracer that can be detected in the body by medical equipment. 

Technetium is usually supplied through nuclear reactors that produce molybdenum-99, a radioactive isotope that decays to produce technetium.

The U of A's cyclotron can produce the technetium directly. 

This allows scientists to generate a steady supply, potentially addressing the needs of the entire province, said Sandy McEwan, a professor of oncology at the university.  

"We can make the daily production responsive to the daily need of the system, and we can also bypass the multiple steps that are required from the reactor," said McEwan. 

Since the machine is powered electrically, it doesn't produce any nuclear waste. 

"It's much cleaner, much safer. That's why you can have a cyclotron facility in the middle of the city with no repercussions," said John Wilson, who heads the university's cyclotron facility. 

Isotopes for the future

The cyclotron can also produce other types of medical isotopes, or radionuclides, including the ones used in positron emission tomography (PET) imaging. 

Currently, 80 per cent of imaging is done with technetium, but researchers believe that PET will replace it over the next 10 years as the technology of choice in diagnostics. 

"The newer radionuclides that are used, the so-called PET imaging agents, give a much more high-resolution picture," said Wilson. "We're slowly moving toward more PET isotopes." 

As the medical industry transitions to PET imaging, the U of A's cyclotron will be able to transition with it.

"With our technology, we can easily switch to the new ones," said Jan Andersson, a radiochemist with the U of A.

Sandy McEwan (left), Jan Andersson, and John Wilson (right) used a cyclotron to produce technetium, an isotope used in medical imaging. (University of Alberta)

Complementing reactors

Most of the world's medical isotopes are produced by five or six nuclear reactors, that are around 40 years old, explained Andersson.

The reactors occasionally go down, and are costly and time–consuming to repair. 

"It made the supply chain more fragile," said Andersson. "So when one of the other reactors needs service or maintenance, there can be interruptions in the supply."

The federal government funded the university's cyclotron research to address these shortages. 

After more than three years of work, the scientists have shown that the cyclotrons can add to the supply chain when reactors are out of service. 

Yet the future of the University of Alberta's cyclotron is up in the air. 

"It's going to be up to the federal and provincial governments to determine the way they want to go regarding this," said Andersson. 

Marketing the technology

While the technology used in the U of A's cyclotron is proven, it hasn't been commercialized. 

The technetium is a tag, it needs to be attached to a drug, a specific molecule, in order to function as a diagnostic tool. 

"There's a vast array of potential, we just provide the appropriate tag so it can be followed for imaging," said Wilson. 

The researchers must obtain regulatory approval from Health Canada to be able to market the product, and for clinical use. 

More work also needs to be done to establish the financial viability of the cyclotron.

Many factors, like the cost of building the facilities and decommissioning a nuclear reactor, have to be considered, said McEwan.

"Our preliminary indications are good," he said. "Now that we've done these bulk productions, we have to validate the cost."

The researchers will also work on automating the process to make the raw materials that go into the cyclotron to produce the technetium.

About the Author

Josee St-Onge

Journalist

Josee St-Onge is a journalist with CBC Edmonton. She has also reported in French for Radio-Canada in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Reach her at josee.st-onge@cbc.ca