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Richmond firm plays key role in medical isotope breakthrough

A team of scientists, engineers, technicians and grad students have developed a means to reach large-scale production of an increasingly-scarce isotope, utilizing a Richmond-built cyclotron. -
A team of scientists, engineers, technicians and grad students have developed a means to reach large-scale production of an increasingly-scarce isotope, utilizing a Richmond-built cyclotron.
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A two-dozen strong team of scientists, engineers, technicians and grad students have developed a means to reach large-scale production of an increasingly-scarce isotope critical in the medical imaging of disease in the heart, bones and other parts of the human body.

The breakthrough was announced Sunday, and utilizes a Richmond-manufactured cyclotron which was upgraded using patent-pending hardware changes.

Tim Meyer, spokesperson for TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, said the medical isotope technetium-99m was previously sourced from the aging National Research Universal nuclear reactor in Chalk River, Ontario, which is winding down production of the isotope, ceasing operations by 2016.

The solution will enable the dozen major hospitals across the country to upgrade their existing cyclotrons, and produce the isotope at sufficient levels to meet daily demand, and adjust production to meet their own scheduled needs, at a cost that’s competitive with the current market for the isotope.

He said the made-in-Canada solution came from tremendous cooperation between the public and private sector, with funding coming from the federal and provincial governments.

Meyer explained most devices make isotopes from liquids and gases, but the procedure devised over the last five years by the TRIUMF team employs irradiating a solid material to create this specific widely-used isotope.

By de-centralizing the production of the isotope, hospitals can borrow the isotope when their cyclotron is being serviced from other hospitals equipped with an upgraded cyclotron.

Every year, tens of millions of medical procedures around the world rely on technetium-99m, with today’s demand met by a small number of aging reactors which have suffered maintenance and repair outages that threatened the global supply of the isotope.

Cyclotrons are safer than nuclear reactors because they don’t use any form of uranium, they can be simply turned on and off (unlike a reactor), and uses conventional energies and relatively low levels of radiation, Meyer said.

Richard Eppich, president of Richmond-based Advanced Cyclotron Systems, said: “We are proud of the TRIUMF team and of our equipment; this demonstration validates the overall approach that Canada has been championing—that modern, high-power cyclotrons can produce all of the essential medical isotopes needed in the best hospitals and clinics.”

Meyer said in Europe, leaders are waiting to see what solutions Canada and the U.S. come up with. In the U.S., they are trying to create “smarter reactors”, something that hasn’t been done in decades.

The goal is now to receive federal regulatory approval in the next couple of years. And the vision is to licence out the technology to other countries, with Canada reaping the benefits.

Michael Kovacs, imaging scientist at Lawson Health Research Institute said: “This milestone is key to our plans to deploy this technology to the existing medical cyclotron facilities in Canada, and hundreds more worldwide. The diversification of the (technetium-99m) supply chain with robust and cost-effective cyclotron-based technology will reduce the dependence on the conventional, reactor-derived supply.”

A cyclotron is a type of particle accelerator, in which charged particles are accelerated to high speeds along a trajectory controlled by static magnetic fields. Cyclotron particle beams can be used to bombard other atoms to create short-lived isotopes used for medical imaging.

Meyer explained that Advanced Cyclotron produces the highest-performing cyclotron—considered the “Cadillac” version—and scientists, engineers and technicians worked closely with the cyclotron technicians and engineers to fully-understand the device in preparation for making hardware alterations that would enable large-scale production.

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