Ottawa to spend $6M seeking medical isotope alternatives

The federal government will spend $6 million on clinical research projects to speed up the development of alternatives to medical isotopes, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced Tuesday.

The federal government will spend $6 million on clinical research projects to speed up the development of alternatives to medical isotopes, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq announced Tuesday.

The funding will be used to look for non-nuclear sources of medical isotopes to supplement or replace technetium-99, used to diagnose cancer and heart problems, Aglukkaq told a news conference at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute.

"We will also support the production and testing of these alternatives to reduce the time it takes to move to clinical trials," Aglukkaq said.

The research funding will be distributed starting on Oct. 31.

The announcement came as McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., said its nuclear reactor could supply Canada's medical isotope needs four times over but that it would take up to 18 months to start production.

Representatives from the university told a House of Commons committee Tuesday that the reactor needs an extra $30 million — on top of the $22 million it just got from the federal and Ontario governments — over five years for staff and fuel.

The 50-year-old McMaster reactor would need to ramp up to a seven-day, round-the-clock production cycle. It now runs five days a week for 16 hours at a time.

On Monday, Health Canada announced that an Australian reactor is a safe and effective source of medical isotopes for Canadians.

Health Canada's approval means the Open Pool Australian Light-water or OPAL reactor can provide molybdenum-99, which is in short supply after the reactor in Chalk River, Ont., was shut down last month due to a heavy water leak. The Canadian reactor is expected to be out of commission for at least three months.

Health Canada has also authorized Lantheus Medical Imaging of Boston to supply technetium generators, which produce technetium-99 from molybdenum-99. Technetium-99 is a short-lived isotope used to diagnose cancer and heart problems.

Aglukkaq couldn't say how much of Canada's isotope demand Australia will be able to provide.

"In terms of the actual percentage of supply, we'll know that in the next coming days," Aglukkaq said. "I can't give you a firm date on that, but we have received reassurance from Australia that [that] supply will be for Canada."

Aglukkaq said she is talking to provinces and territories about the increased cost of isotopes currently available, as well as the alternatives.

Other types of isotopes explored

At the Society of Nuclear Medicine meeting in Toronto on Monday, experts said the Australian reactor can supply 10 per cent of world demand, and could slowly boost production but it's unclear by how much.

Lantheus expects to start receiving moly-99 from OPAL in the next few weeks.

Nuclear medical experts are also nervous about isotope supplies since a Dutch reactor is also scheduled to go offline for maintenance in the middle of July.

It will be the first time the Dutch reactor, known as Petten, and the Chalk River reactor — which together provide 65 per cent of the world's molybdenum-99  — are down at the same time.

Approval for alternative types of medical isotopes such as thallium for cardiac scans and sodium fluoride for bone scans has also been been sped up, Aglukkaq said.

"Although the next month is going to be challenging with Petten down as well, I believe that the increasing use of those two alternatives really does give us a significant step up in coping with the need to help our patients," said Dr. Sandy McEwan, the federal government's new special adviser on medical isotopes.

Also on Tuesday, Ontario's Health Ministry announced it will pay $1.4 million in one-time funding to produce sodium fluoride as an alternative diagnostic procedure for about 2,000 cancer patients.

With files from The Canadian Press