Thunder Bay medical experts say a new piece of equipment will shield cancer patients from a looming, Canada-wide isotope shortage. 

The federal government is closing down the Chalk River reactor in southern Ontario in 2016, sparking fears that there won't be enough of the radioactive material used in cancer diagnosis.

That's where northwestern Ontario's new cyclotron could save the day.

Mike Campbell

Mike Campbell is director of research operations for the Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute, and is leading the cyclotron project. (Supplied)

"Instead of having isotopes brought in, we can produce those locally,” said Mike Campbell, director of research operations for the Thunder Bay Regional Research Institute.

“We have to get them across the parking lot, as opposed to across Lake Superior."

Northwestern Ontario Regional Cancer Centre Oncology chief Dr. Nicole Laferriere said local access means the cancer centre can run tests more often, with fewer delays.

"At the time of diagnosis, it's a very stressful time for patients. They have a lot of uncertainty and we're working quickly to try and define what the problem is and make our plan for treatment."

Shortening wait times

Current diagnostic equipment depends on isotopes flown in from southern Ontario — and is at the mercy of airplane schedules.

“Imagine how a patient [feels] who's waiting for that important diagnostic test and then actually the test is delayed a week because there's a snowstorm,” Laferriere said.

nicole laferriere

Oncology chief Dr. Nicole Laferriere says the PET/CT scanner at Thunder Bay Regional is a vital tool for cancer diagnosis. But it can't do its job without radioactive isotopes. A new cyclotron will help solve the dilemma of maintaining a steady supply. (

Isotopes have a very short 'half-life', which means they start decaying and become less effective as time passes.  If there's a delay in flights, the isotopes become useless and patients' scans have to be postponed.

Campbell said producing isotopes locally will "give the doctors a lot more flexibility of saying, 'You know what? This person really needs to have a scan too.  So instead of doing the ... four patients that we would normally do today, we're going to do five or six.' So we can get those patients in ... [and] hopefully shorten those wait times."

Connecting to a network of isotope producers

The Thunder Bay research community has been proactive in ensuring a supply of isotopes in northwestern Ontario, Laferriere noted.

"The research group has been very visionary in planning for the cyclotron and making sure that citizens in northwestern Ontario will have stable access,” she said.

The team has been working with other universities across Canada to build cyclotrons across the country in preparation for the Chalk River closure.

Thunder Bay will be part of a new isotope network that Campbell said will act as a safety net when it comes to potential shortages. If one site goes down, it can turn to one of the other sites to get the needed isotopes, he added.

Thunder Bay’s site will also export isotopes to other facilities, which will generate revenue to help keep the cyclotron running.

The new cyclotron is expected to start producing medical isotopes in the next year.