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MU Research Reactor poised for global production of medical radioisotope

Friday, January 9, 2009 | 2:00 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — The MU Research Reactor Center is aiming to add another distinction to its name: first domestic producer of Molybdenum-99.

Workers at the reactor have been creating a proposal to modify the reactor to fit the production needs of the radioisotope, casually referred to as Moly-99, which is used in 70 percent to 80 percent of all nuclear medicine tests. The proposal was created in response to growing concern over the increasing difficulty in importing Moly-99, which has put American hospitals in a bind.

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Since there are no sites in the U.S. producing Moly-99, hospitals are dependent on foreign supplies for procedures that require Moly-99's decayed form, Technetium-99m.  Bone scans as well as heart, brain and renal imaging are examples of procedures that require the decayed form of the isotope.

The situation is exacerbated by older plants in other countries that are closing for extended amounts of time. These shutdowns can create shortages that put doctors practicing nuclear medicine in a tough situation: prioritizing which patients need treatment the most.

"We're shooting for supplying half of the U.S. need," said David Robertson, associate director of research and education at the MU reactor. The proposal would create a new facility to process the materials and also create jobs.

 Meanwhile the reactor's staff in October successfully finished its first demonstration to create the radioisotope.

"These are test runs for us to help understand what it would take to scale up to be a real producer," Robertson said.

The radioisotope Moly-99 is created in a nuclear fission reaction when a neutron is added to the stable isotope Moly-98.

What makes Moly-99 special is that it decays into Technetium-99m, which is used in several medical tests, said Silvia Jurisson, an MU professor of chemistry  who also has a joint appointment at the reactor.

The U.S. uses roughly 30,000 doses of Technetium-99m a day in a five-day week. It is injected into patients receiving body scans for cancer, heart disease and bone or kidney illnesses and cardiac stress tests.

About every 65 hours, half of the Moly-99 created decays into Technetium-99m. The Moly-99 and Technetium-99m combination is brought to hospitals in small lead generators. Once it arrives, the Technetium-99 is added to different "kits" created by pharmaceutical makers to test for a variety of illnesses.

“The technetium that comes off the generators is in one chemical form, and they can convert that into a bunch of different ones," Jurisson said.

Currently, there are only four major suppliers of Moly-99: Canada, the Netherlands, Belgium and South Africa. Two smaller reactors are also located in Argentina and France, New Scientist magazine reported.

The U.S. imports most of its Moly-99 from Canada's NRU reactor. In December 2007, the reactor closed for a month because of an inability to meet the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission's regulations.

What was supposed to be a week-long maintenance shutdown there became the start of a worldwide shortage that forced doctors to prioritize patients needing Moly-99 for testing, The Associated Press reported.

The reactor in the Netherlands, the world's second largest supplier of Moly-99, has been closed since August, New Scientist reported.

But other shutdowns are occurring as well:

  • In August 2008, the BR-2, part of the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre,  had an uncontrolled release of radioactive iodine-131 into the atmosphere that led to an emergency shutdown.
  • At the same time, the Osiris unit in France was closed.
  • The High Flux Research Reactor in Petten, the Netherlands, experienced issues with its cooling system and was forced to close.
  • Also in August, Canada's reactor experienced an electrical storm and was temporarily closed, New Scientist reported.

Meanwhile, the South African Safari-1 unit at the Pelindaba Nuclear Research Center stepped up its production to accommodate the closures, according to World Nuclear News.

The Dutch and Belgian reactors were still closed in late November, Robertson said.

By mid-September 2008, the closings and glitches meant hospitals could receive only 50 percent of their usual supplies, New Scientist reported.

"We've already experienced two shortages of Moly-99 in this country in the last two years, and when that happens there are people who aren't able to get their nuclear medicines scans as planned," Robertson said.

In cases of a shortage, practitioners of nuclear medicine are quickly alerted to a reactor's closing and that a shortage may occur.

"What's been going on is they have been prioritizing who gets the scans," Robertson said.

Physicians decide on the use of the available material. Patients without a critical need for the Technetium-99m kits may face a delay in receiving medicine or procedures.

However, to safely make Moly-99, the MU reactor will need to build a processing center to handle the results from the fission.

The center was originally budgeted at $40 million, but officials are now working with a reactor in Argentina to fine tune the estimate.

"We're getting a much better estimate by going through an engineering design study," Robertson said.

With proposals still in the earliest stages, there are plenty of unknowns. Without a long history with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it is difficult to estimate how long the process is for approving plans on the processing center. Commission approval is necessary for any construction.

Also unknown is what partners the MU reactor would work with, if anyone, to create Moly-99. If a company were to work with the reactor center to create Moly-99, it could shorten the time MU waits for approval from the NRC and U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

"I think the good news is that a number of organizations, both private and public, are talking to us and are excited about the possibility of using MURR," Robertson said.

If everything were to go according to plan, more people would be hired to work at the facility. The extra cost would be covered by the sales of Moly-99.

Also, the processing of uranium, which is used to make the Moly-99 reactive, would provide workers at the reactor with other radioisotopes for current research programs and could create new programs to find cancer treatments.

"It's not just an income-generating project," Robertson said. "It would generate income, but it would also open the door for us to do other research."

The MU reactor, located at the Research Park on Providence Road, was built in 1966. It is the largest university reactor in the country; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's reactor is second largest. MIT's reactor is 5 megawatts; MU's is 10 megawatts, Robertson said.

Missouri University of Science and Technology at Rolla, part of the UM four-campus system, has a 200 kilowatts  reactor, according to the reactor's Web site.

Twenty percent of the MU reactor's operating budget comes from the university, Robertson said. The rest comes from the sale of radioisotopes,  a special kind of silicon called "neutron transmuted doped silicon" and through analytical work for the industry and government and academia, Robertson said.

The research reactor employs about 150 people full time. On a weekly basis they produce several radioisotopes that are used in a variety of treatments, including liver cancer and a pain medication for bone cancer.

MU is considered one of the best places to study nuclear pharmaceuticals.

"We have an outstanding group of faculty that collaborates with us, who are in biochemistry, chemistry, veterinary medicine and the VA hospital," Robertson said.


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