Proof of Concept in Isotope Production Could Signal Broader Adoption of Cyclotron Technology

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Ever since the 2009 shutdown of the Chalk River nuclear reactor in Canada, the North American imaging community has been searching for a viable source of production to replace the loss of its top isotope generator. As America has begun its own approach to solving the problem, federally funding the start-up of nuclear reactor sites in Wisconsin, researchers in Canada have begun studying an alternative path for the creation of technetium-99m, the isotope most widely used in contrast media. Earlier this year, scientists at the TRIUMF national laboratory in British Columbia advocated for the establishment of a distributed network of particle accelerators that could be used to produce technetium-99m in cyclotrons rather than reactors. Today, researchers at the University of Alberta have underscored their approach by announcing the creation of “viable quantities of high-quality technetium-99m” in a 19 Mev cyclotron. Further, lead researcher Sandy McEwan claims their production was done in compliance with international Good Clinical Practice standards—the first time, he says, such a study has been held to that standard. In a press release from the University of Alberta, McEwan was quoted as saying, “the quality of the technetium and the quality of the images is the exactly the same” when produced from a cyclotron as from a nuclear reactor. In the worldwide imaging field, technetium-99m is used in 85 percent of all nuclear medicine procedures, including an estimated 20 million in the United States and 2 million in Canada, says the University of Alberta. As the growth of PET-CT and molecular imaging continue, the isotope will continue to be in significant demand. That’s the same wager that Cardinal Health is placing, as the company announced plans to launch three new cyclotrons—in Sacramento, Portland, and Chicago—to further the expansion of its domestic radiopharmaceutical business, which will total 40 altogether. Two of the three represent the first such sites in those states, and the Sacramento location is only the third in California. If the domestic market for radiopharmaceuticals outstrips the speed of domestic reactor construction, perhaps a non-fissile solution will take firmer hold in America as well.