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Canada’s medical isotopes story 2.0

Updated: Jan 10, 2022

People can recall with surprising detail where they were when major events took place: Neil Armstrong taking that one small step, 9/11, Barack Obama becoming president.

A “big event” that I can recall with precision happened in 2009. And while it maybe didn’t make headlines in your own life, as a nuclear medicine student completing my last year of training at the Foothills Hospital in Calgary, it certainly did in mine.

Chalk River’s NRU (Credit: Toronto Public Library)

That year Canada announced it was shutting down the National Research Universal (NRU) reactor at Chalk River—a facility producing more than 40% of the world’s life-saving medical isotopes for diagnostic imaging and therapies.

I remember hearing about hospitals across the country dealing with isotope shortages.

This meant cancelling tests, triaging patients based on risk (cancer and cardiac patients were given priority), rationing what little radioactivity was left, and using invasive exploratory surgeries when no isotopes were available.

And on a smaller scale, I remember what the shutdown meant to me personally.

I wondered how this would impact future job prospects in my field post-graduation, which was only a few months away. Where the industry was once so promising, there was suddenly so much uncertainty.

Flash forward a decade and it’s clear that Canada’s medical isotope story isn’t over—in fact, it’s an industry in renewal.

Case in point—take a look at what’s happened since 2018, when the NRU reactor went offline permanently:

  • The Trudeau government announced federal funding to build a new nuclear medicine hub at TRIUMF which was later named The Institute for Advanced Medical Isotopes (IAMI). This facility would eventually become a national hub for innovative cancer research and development.

  • BWXT acquired Nordion’s medical isotope division and is currently undertaking an innovative project to enrich Molybdenum using neutron capture at the reactor and Moly-98 as the target.

  • Bruce Power completed its first production of high specific activity (HSA) Cobalt-60 for Nordion. Bruce Power is currently a global leader in the production of this critical isotope that is used for cancer treatments as well as sterilization of medical devices.

TRIUMF's neutron detector array (Credit: TRIUMF)
  • TRIUMF and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) completed their first joint production run of Actinium-225, a rare alpha emitting medical isotope that shows great promise as the basis for new and cutting edge cancer therapies. This achievement is a significant leap forward in establishing a supply for one of rarest medical isotopes in the world.

  • McMaster University, home to Canada’s most powerful nuclear research reactor, became the world’s largest and most reliable producers of Iodine-125 and QuiremSpheres—a radioembolic therapy used to treat liver and other cancers.

  • Framatome and Kinectrics launched Isogen, a joint venture that provides and supports isotope production using Bruce Power’s nuclear reactors. Isogen announced plans to produce Lutetium-177, an isotope that is used in Germany to treat prostate cancer, and is currently evaluating the production of other isotopes within this project.

With all of these innovative projects underway, it is clear that there is a lot of potential for Canada to perhaps emerge once again as a market leader.

The future: getting back in the game

With new technologies and applications of the CANDU® fleet, it seems we’re entering the beginning of a new dawn. A time where innovative projects carve out a new path for medical isotope production in Canada.

Harvesting Cobalt-60 (Credit: Bruce Power)
Creating an attractive environment for new business and removing regulatory barriers will be key to promoting growth in the industry.

According to the World Nuclear Association, more than 40 million nuclear medicine procedures are performed each year, with demand for radioisotopes growing annually by 5%.

In 2016, the global radioisotopes market was valued at $9.6 billion, with medical isotopes accounting for about 80% of that.

After giving up our lion’s share of the medical isotope market, it will take strong partnerships, innovation and continuing the important work that is currently being done in this field by the private sector.

And I am hoping that this will be enough to position Canada as a global leader in this lifesaving field once again.

--Susie Ho is the Senior Advisor at NII's Bruce Power Centre for Next Generation Nuclear.


Written by Susie Ho, former Senior Advisor at the Nuclear Innovation Institute.


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