As he watched a multimillion-dollar piece of equipment being lowered into its new home at Eastern Health in St. John's, Health Minister John Haggie said he was thinking about magnets.

Known as a cyclotron, and encased in tons of concrete and lead, the machine uses powerful magnets to create medical isotopes.

In simpler terms, it creates radioactive material to diagnose and treat cancer and heart disease at the province's new molecular medicine facility.

"Basically it's a particle accelerator," said Haggie of the cyclotron, which works with the province's first PET/CT scanner.

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Newfoundland and Labrador Health Minister John Haggie says the new PET/CT scanner at Eastern Health's new nuclear and molecular medicine facility will attract patients from across Newfoundland and Labrador. (Mark Quinn/ CBC)

"The cyclotron is a way of accelerating protons in a circle by using electromagnets and when they get enough energy, we fire them at a target and you make a radio isotope for either diagnosis or for treatment of a patient's condition."

Haggie says the PET/CT scanner will attract thousands of patients to the Health Sciences facility from across the province.

N.L.'s first PET scanner1:53

It's estimated that, before the new equipment arrived, as many as 300 of those patients had to leave the province annually for the testing that only this scanner can do.

"It's going to make diagnosis, assessment and treatment of many conditions a lot easier," Haggie said.

Targeting cancer

The clinical chief of the nuclear and molecular imaging program at Eastern Health says the scanner will focus on cancer patients first.

"Patients will receive a very different type of cancer care, a much more advanced type [of] cancer care that hopefully will impact their treatment and of course their overall survival," said Dr. Peter Hollett

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Dr. Peter Hollett is the clinical chief of nuclear medicine and co-chair of the PET steering committee. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

The health minister says there will also be great benefits for research in the province.

"It will attract high quality, high-calibre researchers," he said. "It will attract medical physicists in a way that will enable the scientific community here to benefit in spinoff ways."

No more isotope shortages

Radioactive isotopes are required for some diagnostic tests, including scans for cancer, heart disease and lung disease.

This new facility also means isotope shortages like the ones that hit medical facilities in the province in 2009 will remain things of the past.

With a cyclotron in St. John's, Eastern Health can produce enough medical isotopes for this province and perhaps even enough to export them in the future.

Controlling the risks of radioactive material 

Like a nuclear reactor, a cyclotron creates dangerous radioactive material, but Douglas Abrams, manager of radiopharmaceutical science at Eastern Health, said there is an important difference.

"It's hard to turn a nuclear reactor off," Abrams said. "It's always decaying and it's always producing energy and it's always producing radioactivity. So there are complicated controls to turn a nuclear reactor off.

"A cyclotron can be turned on and off like an X-ray machine … So then you have control of where the isotopes are and where the radiation is."

Security at the new facility is tight because there are concerns about what could happen if radioactive material is misused.

"The concern is for people removing radio isotopes because the potential for a dirty bomb is here," said Abrams.

"It's psychological rather than practical because we wouldn't make enough radio isotopes to actually make a real dirty bomb but you don't have to have a real dirty bomb to have a psychological scare. So we have to be very secure in radio isotopes."

New equipment already in use

The total cost for construction of the new nuclear and molecular facility, buying the new PET/CT scanner, cyclotron and other equipment came to just over $46 million.

And it's being put to work.

Even Tuesday morning as politicians, clinicians and health-care administrators toured the facility, six patients were preparing to use the new equipment later that afternoon.

The PET/CT scanner will initially be operating eight hours a day, three days a week. It's expected that 500 exams will be performed in by the end of this year.

Eastern Health says when the facility is operating at full capacity by January, up to 1,500 scans will be performed annually.