SNM past president calls for domestic production of isotopes

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The nuclear medicine community has been pressuring the U.S. government to develop improved domestic capability for producing these materials to reduce this dependence, said Robert Atcher, PhD, MBA, immediate past president of SNM and director of National Isotope Development Center at Los Alamos National Laboratory in White Rock, N.M., at an opening session of the 240th conference of the American Chemical Society, held this week in Boston.

The U.S. is highly dependent on foreign suppliers of medical isotopes with only about 10-15 percent of the isotopes used in medicine are produced domestically. Medical isotopes aren't the only isotopes in short supply, Atcher noted.

Helium-3, for instance, is a non-radioactive isotope with multiple uses, including efforts to develop nuclear fusion reactors and monitoring to prevent illegal nuclear material from being smuggled into the U.S. Another, californium-252, is used for oil exploration, to help start-up nuclear power reactors, and in mass spectroscopy, a mainstay analytical tool in chemistry, astronomy and other fields of research.

Each day more than 50,000 patients in the U.S. receive diagnostic and therapeutic procedures using medical isotopes, particularly individuals with heart problems and cancer. Eight out of every 10 procedures require technetium-99m, which has a "half-life" of only six hours. "If we don't have access to the best isotopes for medical imaging, doctors may be forced to resort to tests that are less accurate, involve higher radiation doses, are more invasive and more expensive,” said Atcher.

"The challenge we have is to produce enough materials to meet commercial needs as well as needs of the research community — from nuclear physics, to environmental research, to medical research—amid increasing demands and fewer isotope sources," Atcher said. "The long-term solution to this crisis remains to be seen."