Report: Canada fast tracks South African isotopes to fill cancer therapy gap

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Pelindaba Nuclear Research Centre, South Africa
Source: Wikipedia

The long-standing shutdown of the Chalk River nuclear reactor has jeopardized the supply of radioactive iodine to treat thyroid cancer to such an extent that Health Canada has fast-tracked the approval of an Iodine-131 (I-131) supply from the South African Safari reactor, according to a report in the Toronto Sun.

Although a shortage of technetium-99m was anticipated after the Canadian reactor shutdown for repairs in May, nuclear medicine specialists had not expected an insufficient supply of I-131.

They learned about three weeks ago that the isotope was "drying up quickly" in the North American market, said Chris O'Brien, MD, president of the Ontario Association of Nuclear Medicine. "We've never had a two-month [Chalk River] shutdown before," he said.

Health Canada previously allowed the use of isotopes from the Safari reactor under a "special-access program" that required individual approval of shipments. That approval will no longer be necessary, the department said Monday, allowing for easier access.

Yet, even with the I-131 problem resolved for the moment, Canada's overall supply of radioactive isotopes remains unstable. Sandy McEwan, MD, chair of oncology at the University of Alberta's faculty of medicine and dentistry and former SNM president, told the Sun current capacity ranges from about 50 percent in Ontario to 90 percent in Alberta.

"I think it's the small hospitals that struggle because they don't have the flexibility," said McEwan, who is also acting as special advisor on medical isotopes to federal Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq.

In the meantime, a reactor in the Netherlands that had been working over-capacity to help make up for the Chalk River shortages will shut for a month of servicing on July 18, which could have reduced Canada's supplies even further. However, just prior to that occurrence, a Belgian reactor is expected to come back online.

The Sun reported that the experts are hoping the Belgian reactor will compensate for the Dutch shortfall.