COLUMBIA — A global shortage of radioactive isotopes used to diagnose and treat cancer patients has officials at the nation's largest campus research reactor vying to fill the void.
Scientists from Argentina, Egypt, India and 15 other countries are descending upon the MU Research Reactor this week to coordinate research and spur commercial development of the substance, called technetium-99.
The isotopes, which are also referred to as molybdenum-99 (a related radioactive substance), are injected into patients undergoing cardiac stress tests or body scans for cancer, heart disease and bone or kidney illnesses. The procedure is used in about 25 million medical diagnoses and treatments annually.
A month-long shutdown of a government-owned reactor in Canada last year created a critical shortage, with some doctors forced to delay necessary tests. The Canadian reactor supplies half the world's supply of the medical isotopes.
Also, the world's second leading supplier of the radioactive isotope, a reactor in the Netherlands, shut down in August and isn't scheduled to reopen until late November at the earliest.
The only other such licensed commercial facilities are in Belgium and South Africa.
"Hospitals and doctors are having to prioritize diagnostic procedures for really critical care," said Ralph Butler, director of the MU reactor.
"You have to do triage, basically," added Ira Goldman, a project manager with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna.
Butler estimates the MU reactor could produce 50 percent of the medical isotopes needed in the surging American market, provided it receives the necessary Food and Drug Administration approval and identifies a corporate partner to help defray anticipated production costs of $40 million.
Further compounding the problem are the risks associated with highly enriched uranium, which is used not only in the cancer-detecting isotope but in nuclear weapons. Currently, Canada imports some highly enriched uranium from the U.S. for use in isotopes.
With growing concerns about the use of nuclear weapons by terrorists, nuclear scientists — including those at MU — are working to incorporate a safer alternative fuel known as low-enriched uranium, which is commonly found at commercial power reactors.
The U.S. Department of Energy has been working since 1978 to make it possible for universities such as MU and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to use low-enriched uranium. But some universities haven't been able to convert their reactors to allow them to use the safer fuel.
"There is broad technical agreement that (low-enriched uranium) is viable" for medical isotopes, Goldman said. "Anybody that would start now would use LEU."
An Argentinean reactor that sells molybdenum-99 to nine countries already manufactures its isotopes with low-enriched uranium.
"The more you can produce these isotopes closer to where it's being used is an advantage, in cost and security," he added.
Fueling the need for more production of what experts call "moly-99" is the surge in nuclear medicine technology, said Natesan Ramamoorthy, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency's physical and chemical sciences division.
"Use has been expanding. The facilities are getting older and older. So we need more players," he said.