Last year on June 9, 2013 Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, TRIUMF, announced a better way to produce medical isotopes. From my June 9, 2013 posting,
The possibility medical isotopes could be produced with cyclotrons is dazzling, especially in light of the reports a few years ago when it was discovered that the Chalk River facility (Ontario, Canada), the source for one 1/3 of the world’s medical isotopes, was badly deteriorated (my July 2, 2010 posting). Today, Sunday, June 9, 2013, TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, and its partners announced that they have devised a technique for producing medical isotopes that is not dependent on materials from nuclear reactors. …
“The approach taken by our consortium has established the feasibility of producing appreciable quantities of Tc-99m on Canada’s existing cyclotron network. These same machines are also producing additional isotopes used in a growing number of alternative imaging procedures. The net effect is that Canada will remain on the forefront of medical-isotope technology for the foreseeable future,” said John Valliant, Scientific Director and CEO of the CPDC in Hamilton.
Exactly one year later on June 9, 2014 the team responsible for this new means of producing medical isotopes presented an update of their work at the Society of Nuclear Medicine and Molecular Imaging’s (SNMMI) annual conference (from a June 9, 2014 TRIUMF news release),,
… a Canadian team with members from TRIUMF, the BC Cancer Agency, the Centre for Probe Development & Commercialization, and Lawson Health Research Institute announced that they have dramatically advanced technology for addressing the medical-isotope crisis. The key medical isotope, technetium-99m (Tc-99m), can now be produced in meaningful quantities on the world’s most popular cyclotrons, many of which are already installed across Canada and around the world.
Patients, doctors, and hospitals have been concerned about a supply shortage of the workhorse medical isotopes used in cardiac tests and cancer scans as the world moves away from uranium-based nuclear reactors to create these exotic, short-lived, life-saving compounds. The Canadian team has demonstrated the successful production of Tc-99m on a standard cyclotron manufactured by GE Healthcare, confirming that this alternative technology can be used by roughly half of the world’s already-installed cyclotrons. [emphasis mine]
Speaking for the consortium, Dr. Frank Prato of the Lawson Health Research Institute said, “This achievement is based on the efforts of the entire team and showcases our progress; we have a technology that can be applied in jurisdictions across Canada and around the world to produce this important isotope.”
Last summer , the team set a world record for production of the critical isotope, Tc-99m, on a Made-in-Canada medical cyclotron; today, the team showed record production of Tc-99m using a GE [General Electric] PETtrace cyclotron at the Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ontario. This demonstration, along with the work being done at a similar GE cyclotron in Hamilton, ON, validates the business proposition that conventional cyclotrons around the world can be upgraded to produce Tc-99m for their region.
The Government of Canada has articulated an intention to shift away from reactor-based production of medical isotopes in order to diversify the supply, remove uranium from the supply chain, and halt Canadian taxpayer subsidization of isotopes used in other countries. [emphasis mine] Through a sequence of programs at the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, and now Natural Resources Canada, the Canadian government has invested in the research, development, and deployment of alternative accelerator-based technologies for the production of Tc-99m.
Next steps in deploying this technology for Canadian patients will include regulatory approval and working with provincial governments to make the choices required to diversify the supply chain and strengthen healthcare systems. The Canadian team is working to license its proprietary technology and to be positioned to market and supply the essential ingredients to cyclotrons around the world to enable their Tc-99m production.
It’s good to know that this technology allows cyclotrons around the world to be used in the production of medical isotopes. I imagine it’s a great relief know you won’t have to rely on some other country’s production facilities. However, it would have nice to have seen a little less chest-beating. Yes, this technology was developed in Canada but you don’t have to keep repeating Canada/Canadian over and over and over.
As for the Government of Canada’s intention to “halt Canadian taxpayer subsidization of isotopes used in other countries,” that seems somewhat harsh, although not out of line with the Harper government’s ethos.
I hope some thought has been applied to the implications of this policy as it is implemented. For example, do all the countries that need and use medical isotopes produced in Canada have their own cyclotrons? If so, will they be forced to purchase Canadian technology? And, what about the countries that don’t have their own cyclotrons? Are they going to be left out in the cold?
As for taxpayers and subsidies, it should be noted that TRIUMF and, at least one of its partners, BC [British Columbia] Cancer Agency are heavily supported by taxpayers. For example, there’s this Feb. 11, 2014 TRIUMF funding announcement,
In its Economic Action Plan for 2014-2015 released today, the Government of Canada has renewed its commitment to TRIUMF’s existing world-leading research and international partnership activities. The budget secures a base level for existing operations, proposing $222 million for the five years beginning 2015-2016. [emphasis mine] The announcement of this commitment comes a year in advance and gives TRIUMF a six-year planning horizon for the first time, a strategic advantage for Canada in the highly competitive world of international science.
If I understand things correctly, this is their base funding. There are many other programs and instances where TRIUMF gets additional funding as per this May 21, 2014 posting about a new NSERC program and its funding award to TRIUMF for the ISOSIM program which is jointly run with the University of British Columbia.
Getting back to this latest news release, it seems clear the consortium will be selling this technology although there’s no mention as to how this will be done. Have they created a company with this one mission in mind or are they going to make use of a business entity that is already in existence? And, should this be a successful endeavour, will taxpayers see their support/investment returned to them? Given the Canadian business model, it is much more likely that the company will be grown to a point where it becomes an attractive purchase to a business entity based in another country.