Research breakthrough creates key medical isotopes without nuclear reactors
In early 2009, Canada, along with many other countries, faced an emerging shortage of Technetium-99m (Tc-99m), the world's most widely used medical isotope - used some 76,000 times each day around the globe to help diagnose cancer, cardiac dysfunction, and certain other diseases. Historically, this element was produced in certain specialized types of nuclear reactors, many of which were growing old and becoming less reliable as a source of Tc-99m.
To make sure that Canadians would not be affected, the Government of Canada took a number of steps to address the issue. One central initiative was a $6 million partnership between the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) to develop alternatives to reactor-produced Tc-99m.
The largest grant funded by that partnership went to a team headed by Dr. Francois Bénard, Scientific Director of the Centre of Excellence for Functional Cancer Imaging at the BC Cancer Agency, to examine the use of cyclotrons as a source of Tc-99m. Cyclotrons are devices that use a magnetic field to accelerate a beam of sub-atomic particles to high speeds. About a dozen of these devices already exist at Canadian hospitals and health clinics for the production of other isotopes for more specialized medical research. Canada's largest cyclotron is located at TRIUMF, Canada's National Laboratory for Particle and Nuclear Physics. Recently, Bénard and colleagues at TRIUMF announced their success in this regard, directing a beam of protons (essentially hydrogen atoms with their electrons removed) at a piece of molybdenum-100. The piece of metal, now containing a mix of Mo-100, Mo-99 and Tc-99m, is then dissolved into a liquid solution so the elements can be separated.
Given that there are a dozen or more cyclotrons in operation across Canada, this technology promises to make Tc-99 available to almost all hospitals and clinics where it would be used for patient diagnosis.