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The future of Canada’s medical isotopes ecosystem

Updated: Jan 10, 2022

During my time practicing nuclear medicine, I have seen the industry evolve with the advent of new and innovative treatments that were constantly being introduced.

And though it's only been a few short years since I’ve retired my scrubs, it has been remarkable watching all the additional developments that continue to emerge out of this sector. New products and broadening applications of medical isotopes are key drivers that will continue to catalyze growth in this field well into the future.

In fact, the World Nuclear Association reported that the medical isotopes industry is currently growing at a rate of 5% annually with more than 40 million nuclear medicine procedures performed each year.

The growing popularity of medical isotopes in both diagnostics and treatment has inevitably led to the emergence of new entrants into the space, which in turn has created an environment that’s constantly advancing and making progress.

This is especially true here in Canada, where decades of leadership in this field have allowed us to create a hub of expertise and establish ourselves as a tier-one nuclear country.

A resilient supply of lifesaving isotopes

In the past, medical isotopes in Canada were produced exclusively by cyclotrons and research reactors, until more recently, when nuclear power reactors joined production efforts.

This new ecosystem is one where all three technologies work together to ensure that there is both resiliency in the Canadian supply chain as well as a constant pursuit of improvement and innovation that fuels medical research.

Dr. Karin Stephenson is one of the trailblazers paving the way and driving innovation to ensure the success of the medical isotopes industry here in Canada.

In her current role as the Manager of Commercial Operations at McMaster University’s research reactor, she is spearheading efforts to further business development, strengthen government relations and increase public outreach and communications efforts to demystify nuclear.

I recently had a chance to sit down with Karin and talk about all these things. Watch the highlights or continue reading, below, for our full conversation.

SH: Could you describe what a research reactor does?

KS: A research reactor is really a multipurpose research tool. We use neutrons at the core of our nuclear reactor to solve complex problems in clean energy, material science, medical isotopes, radiopharmaceuticals, nuclear safety and security. And it's also important to note that research reactors are currently the main supply of medical isotopes globally.

SH: Bruce Power and OPG recently started producing medical isotopes like Lutetium-177 and Molybdenum-99. Is this a relatively new concept?

QuiremSpheres cancer therapy (via Interventional News)

KS: Yes, it's very new. Power reactors are traditionally involved in electricity and providing clean energy.

Using our Canadian infrastructure to make short-lived medical isotopes is very innovative, it's exciting. And it's a great way to leverage the billions of dollars of investment that we've made in Canada in this space in order to make those medical isotopes and shore up the supply chain.

SH: What are the implications of power reactors producing isotopes for the industry? Is it a good thing?

KS: It’s a great thing because one of the issues that we have in medical isotopes is having a robust supply chain. When we have problems and shortages in the supply chain, patients go untreated. So we want to make sure that we have a resilient and robust supply chain in order for patients not to go untreated. However, there’s a bit of a balance to that too. While we want to build in this resilience, we also want to note that most research reactors are dependent upon the revenue for medical isotope sales in order to survive. And so we have to find a way to work together.

I think there’s a lot of space of us to work and collaborate—and to remember that research reactors are involved in the research of next generation medical isotopes as well as many other critical research areas.

SH: Do you think Canada needs more research reactors?

McMaster Nuclear Reactor (via McMaster University)

KS: Yes. If we had a more powerful research reactor in Canada, it would increase our research capabilities and innovation in this space. It's important to note that research reactors support both fundamental and applied research. And there's lots of talk about enhancing our infrastructure in Canada.

We are a tier-one nuclear nation, and we have a strong history in both research reactors and in power reactors.

And if we add another research reactor, it would only allow us to do more.

SH: What can be done to drive innovation in this space?

KS: When I think of innovation, I do think of research, and I might be a little bit biased as I'm a scientist, but I think that we want to invest in our research at all levels and capabilities and facilities to enable innovation.

One of the areas we need to address is demystifying nuclear so that people don't feel afraid of it. And when we talk about medical isotopes, we want people to know that their medical isotopes come from nuclear and that's really important.

But the other piece of the pie is we really have to think about the people. We want to get our young people engaged in nuclear research.

And the impact that our industry does has a direct impact on people's lives. And I can't think of anything more exciting than that.

SH: What would you say to a young person who might be interested in pursuing a career in this field?

KS: Do it! It’s really exciting! One of the things I’m most passionate about working in this field is that there is a tangible lifesaving impact.

Your research or work can change people’s lives. And there’s nothing, I think, more rewarding than that. For young people: follow your passion and do what you love. If you do that, you will always be happy in your job and it won’t feel like work!

Key takeaways

Canada’s medical isotope industry is an environment where governments, academia and the private sector all play important roles and must do so in a collaborative way that creates an overall ecosystem that is both balanced and competitive.

It is not enough to ensure our supply chain is robust, but we must continue to invest in research reactors and increase R&D spending to foster and nurture innovation.

Lastly, we must do what we can to encourage young people to enter these fields so that Canada’s medical isotope ecosystem can continue to thrive.


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


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