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National research collaboration leads to Health Canada approval of life-saving radioisotope production

St. Joseph's Health Care London - 

A Canadian consortium, which includes Lawson Health Research Institute (Lawson), TRIUMF, BC Cancer and Centre for Probe Development and Commercialization, is the first in the world to receive regulatory approval to produce the world’s most commonly used medical isotope, technetium-99m (Tc-99m), using small particle accelerators known as cyclotrons. 

Tc-99m is used in tens of millions of nuclear medicine procedures globally each year. These include cancer scans, cardiac tests, as well as several other diagnostic procedures. As the world moves away from uranium-based nuclear reactors, there has been growing concern in the medical community of a global shortage of these life-saving compounds. This development helps secure a domestic supply of Tc-99m for Canadian patients.

For over a decade, Dr. Michael Kovacs, Director, Lawson Cyclotron & PET Radiochemistry Facility, and Steven Foster, Business Manager, Lawson Imaging, have been working on research that has contributed significantly to this major development. They have demonstrated the successful production of Tc-99m on a standard hospital-based cyclotron at Lawson, confirming that this technology can be used by almost half of the world’s already installed cyclotrons. Clinical trials were conducted across Canada and locally at St. Joseph’s Health Care London.

“In 2011, we received federal funding to see if we could develop a technology to produce Tc-99m in hospital cyclotrons,” explains Dr. Kovacs. “Canada’s Chalk River nuclear reactor was one of the world’s largest suppliers, and it was set to close in 2016. Cyclotron facilities offer a greener, safer, more sustainable approach for producing critical medical isotopes. Our goal was to find an alternative to the traditional means of producing this isotope, and we have been successful.”

Nuclear medicine is a functional imaging technique, meaning that it images biological function. Medical isotopes are converted to radiopharmaceuticals which get injected into the patient during a procedure. According to the specific biological properties of the isotope, they move throughout the body, rendering a 3D map of where the isotope has gone. This gives researchers and medical professionals valuable information of how various physiological processes are performing.

“Canada is a global leader in nuclear imaging technology. With the help of our collaborators across the country, we have home-grown technology to produce commercial quantities of Tc-99m on common cyclotrons,” adds Mr. Foster.  “This technology has been patented and licensed to ARTMS Inc., a spin-off from the consortium, and is now being commercialized and sold throughout the world.”

The process was approved by Health Canada in November, 2020, and is expected to be deployed in British Columbia by 2022.