Prairies set to lead medical isotope research

University of Saskatchewan, University of Winnipeg projects hoping to produce medical isotopes receive combined $14 million from feds

Two prairie universities are set to lead the way in developing new ways to create medical isotopes that are less wasteful and friendlier to the environment. Projects at the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Winnipeg that aim to create medical isotopes without producing radioactive waste that a traditional nuclear reactor usually yields received a combined $14 million from Natural Resources Canada, with $4 million going to the U of W project and $10 million to the U of S, according to the Canadian University Press. The funding was announced Jan. 24.

Medical isotopes are microscopic particles that can be injected into the body to diagnose heart diseases and treat certain types of cancer, and are also used for detailed medical imaging. A large portion of the world’s supply is produced in Canada by the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor in Chalk River, Ont., which is currently the country’s only facility that produces medical isotopes. When the reactor was closed in 2007 for maintenance, it resulted in an international shortage.

The reactor was again shutdown in 2009 and not able to start up again until 2010. Since these problems occurred, the National Research Council has been searching for alternative ways for medical isotopes to be produced.

David Walker, leader of the U of W project Prairie Isotope Production Enterprises (PIPE), explained that the project already has a “ready-made facility”, as it will be using a former Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL) facility outside of Pinawa, Man. Walker said the team hopes to be ready to produce the medical isotopes using their method by 2012.

The U of S Canadian Light Source (CLS) Medical Isotope Project may take more time than its Manitoba counterpart to get its research off the ground, as it requires a linear accelerator to be installed, and the space set to be used for the project to be made more accessible to the research team, said the project’s lead investigator Mark de Jong.