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TRIUMF Scientist Muses on Medical Isotopes in Nature Magazine Essay

12 February 2009

Physicians and patients around the world are increasingly anxious about the shortage of nuclear isotopes used for medical imaging in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, brain disease and cardiac problems. The Union of Concerned Scientists issued a call to improve supplies earlier this month.

Four-fifths of the most widely-used radionuclide comes from just two nuclear reactor facilities: one in the Netherlands, and one in Canada. Stockpiling for more than a couple of days is impossible, thanks to the short half-life of the isotope. Unexpected closures of both of these aging facilities over the past year and a half have caused panic and the cancellation of medical procedures. In addition, both facilities make use of highly enriched uranium, which some perceive as a terrorism risk.

The article is online.

In an essay published today in Nature, TRIUMF’s Dr. Thomas J. Ruth reflects on this situation and offers some hope for the future. Ruth’s solution is to replace reactor-made isotopes with ones made from an accelerator. This is a cheaper and safer alternative, as it does not involve highly enriched uranium but requires efforts from the Canadian government towards retaining its role as a world leader in nuclear medicine. His vision for the future involves equipping more hospitals with their own accelerator facilities, so that different isotopes can be used to produce valuable, high-quality medical images.

By Timothy I. Meyer

TRIUMF’s Head of Strategic Planning and Communications, with help from Nature