Nfld. & Labrador

New Eastern Health cyclotron aims to help more patients get PET scans

Once fully operational, the machine will produce a radioactive material used in testing called fluorodeoxyglucose, known as FDG.

Having local supplies could mean fewer cancelled appointments

A long-awaited diagnostic machine is about to come online

CBC News Newfoundland

2 months agoVideo
Mark Quinn reports on how Eastern Health will soon begin operating state-of-the-art equipment that promises to improve patient care 2:01

A multimillion-dollar piece of medical equipment will soon be fully operational in Newfoundland and Labrador, helping to ease supply concerns for pharmaceuticals needed for medical imaging in the Eastern Health region.

The device, called a cyclotron, is used to make radiopharmaceuticals used in diagnostic testing with a PET — positron emission tomography — scanner. Once fully operational, the machine will produce a radioactive material called fluorodeoxyglucose, known as FDG. It's used to help give doctors a clearer picture in a PET scan.

The cyclotron was installed three years ago and needed to be placed in an underground bunker due to its radioactivity.

The cyclotron will produce a radioactive material called fluorodeoxyglucose, commonly known as FDG. The material is used in diagnostic testing with a PET scanner. (Eastern Health)

Dr. Jeffrey Flemming, Eastern Health's clinical chief of nuclear medicine, said the health authority needed to get through a lot of red tape to be able to operate — such as a licence from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and approval from Health Canada — but they are ready to begin local production of FDG.

"Friday will be our first clinical production, but it will take us some time to ramp up our supply from here until we're not reliant at all anymore on outside FDG," he said.

Dr. Jeffrey Flemming is the clinical chief of nuclear medicine at Eastern Health. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

Flemming said the cyclotron will help create a local source for FDG, as the material previously needed to be shipped in from other provinces. He said this created transportation challenges, as the half-life of FDG is just under two hours.

"We've had issues with transportation at every point along that process. From transportation to the airport in Toronto or Montreal … to the flight itself, or transportation here," Flemming said.

"These are things that are just inherent in running a program in this way … so there's no question that that has resulted in cancellations and rebookings."

Local FDG a 'significant advantage,' experts say

Dr. Peter Hollett, Eastern Health's former clinical chief of nuclear medicine, said the cyclotron will help patients in cancer treatment, as PET scans are often used to help doctors find cancerous tumours.

"It depends a little bit by tumour type, but anywhere from 30 to 50 per cent of cancer patients will have their management altered by this use of technology," he said. "Which is a staggering number." 

"It changes people from being surgically treated versus chemotherapy, or one form of chemotherapy to another. It's a definite advantage, and a significant change in how we manage these patients."

Health Minister John Haggie says the cyclotron will help residents who need a PET scan stay in the province. (CBC)

Health Minister John Haggie said the addition will help more people stay in the province for PET scans, while also helping the province's medical community.

"From a scientific point of view, this is, in many ways, a magnet," Haggie said.

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

Flemming said his team is most looking forward to a reliable FDG supply, and hopes to be independent from other provinces sometime in 2021. He said the cyclotron will allow more people in the province to get PET scans and limit the number of cancelled appointments.

"The main issue is calling patients and rebooking them.… Those are very stressful conversations to have for our patients and our staff," he said.

"It's not going to eliminate that requirement, it will just make it far less likely."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Mark Quinn