Made-to-order isotopes hold promise for healthcare, science frontier

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The future of nuclear physics is in designer isotopes—specific rare isotopes designed to solve scientific problems and open doors to new technologies, according to Bradley Sherrill, associate director for research at the National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory (NSCL) at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing.

“We have developed a remarkable capability over the last 10 or so years that allows us to build a specific isotope to use in research,” Sherrill said. “It is a new tool that promises to allow whole new directions in research to move forward. There are tremendous advances that are possible.”

In the May 9 issue of Science, Sherrill outlined some of the possibilities as well as what it will take to get there.

“Rare isotopes don’t always exist in nature – they must be coaxed out with high-energy collisions created by special machines, like those in MSU’s Coupled Cyclotron facility. As technology advances, newer equipment is needed,” Sherrill said.

He said the next step for the U.S. nuclear science community will be the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, a facility for the study of nuclear structure and nuclear astrophysics, expected to be built by the U.S. Department of Energy sometime in the next decade.

This type of basic science holds “its own gold mine of potential,” he noted.  PET scans are an example of the payoff associated with pushing the bounds of accelerator science to study new specific isotopes. To create PET scans, scientists first had to create an isotope with a specific radioactivity that decayed quickly enough and safely enough to inject in the body, Sherrill said.

“The rare-isotope research supported by National Science Foundation (NSF) at the NSCL enables us to push forward our understanding of nuclei at the frontiers of stability, with direct connections to the processes that produce the elements in our world and that underlie the life cycle of stars,” said Bradley Keister, a program officer in NSF Physics Division. “Applications to societal areas including medicine and security have traditionally gone hand in hand with these ever-advancing capabilities.”

“These are isotopes that are not easy to produce. That’s the frontier we’re working on,” Sherrill wrote. “A wider range of available isotopes should benefit the fields of biomedicine (by producing an expanded portfolio of radioisotopes), international security (by providing the technical underpinning to nuclear forensics specialists) and nuclear energy (by leading to better understanding of the sort of nuclear reactions that will power cleaner, next-generation reactors).”