Canadian researchers who have been collaborating since 2010 on an alternative approach to the production of medical radioisotopes are poised to launch a commercial venture to market their innovation globally. The timing is auspicious, coming just weeks before the NRU reactor in Chalk River ceases regular production of molybdenum-99, the isotope that enables medical clinics around the world to produce technetium-99 used in imaging procedures performed on millions of cancer patients each year.
Last week the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a detailed report warning of isotope shortages that could delay these procedures, which are often crucial to determining a patient’s diagnosis or treatment. Similar problems arose at the end of 2008 when the NRU unexpectedly broke down but this time the shutdown is intended to be permanent, the first step toward a complete retirement of the facility in 2018. The NAS has therefore put the NRU’s customers on notice that they will have to set up ongoing arrangements with other sources.
Many of these customers have long since done so, especially in Canada, where Natural Resources Canada invested upward of $40 million in research projects to investigate methods of generating Tc-99 that did not involve a nuclear reactor. This work has made it possible for dozens of institutions across the country outfitted with cyclotrons to irradiate Mo-99 targets with these machines, thereby producing Tc-99 that is indistinguishable from reactor-generated isotopes.
According to Paul Schaffer, who leads the nuclear medicine division of the Vancouver-based cyclotron centre TRIUMF, the successful Canadian roll-out of this technology could be emulated on a much broader basis.
“There’s about 600 machines around the world today that could be retrofitted to produce technetium,” he says. He adds that in developing countries eager to adopt isotope-based medical imaging, the daunting costs and complexities of maintaining a nuclear reactor will be eclipsed by the comparative advantages of much more modest investments in cyclotrons or other small-scale accelerators.
Schaffer and his colleagues at other Canadian centres that developed this technology see commercial potential in this prospect. They are creating a new enterprise called ARTMS, which stands for Alternative Radioisotope Technologies for Medical Science but which is likewise intended to link the company’s proprietary targeting hardware with the bow-and-arrow imagery of the classical Greek archer Artemis. That icon will stand for the company’s flagship products, which can be installed on cyclotrons so they can readily turn Mo-99 into Tc-99.
The principal participants in ARTMS will come from four organization that previously collaborated on developing the cyclotron solution for technetium production, which includes TRIUMF, the BC Cancer Agency, the Centre for Probe Development and Commercialization in Hamilton, Ontario, and the Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ontario.
“We had a team in place that could jump when the federal government first encountered this problem,” Schaffer explains. “This initiative is the result of that. Our business model will now be on sales to potential consumers of this technology. We have the know-how and the hardware that can enable them to start their own technetium production.”