News Feature | January 20, 2017

As Medical Isotope Shortage Looms, Alternative Emerges

Christine Kern

By Christine Kern, contributing writer

Physician Shortage Tool

NuView Life Sciences Subsidiary emerges to fill the gap.

As Physics World reports, a U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NAS) report found the U.S. could be facing severe shortages of the vital medical isotope technetium-99m when the aging NRU nuclear reactor in Chalk River, Canada, stops producing molybdenum-99. Technetium-99m, which is derived from the molybdenum-99 isotope, is widely used for medical imaging.

The report found there was a greater than 50 percent chance of severe shortages of the two isotopes following the shutdown of the Canadian reactor. They cannot be stockpiled, since both isotopes have a very short half-life. The Canadian facility was the only North American source, and while other global sources exist, they too come from other aging reactors prone to unscheduled shutdowns.

To help counter this shortage, U.S. Radiopharmaceuticals (USR), a subsidiary of NuView Life Sciences (NVLS) has announced it will produce an alternative isotope that can meet the domestic and global need. It is also exploring new alternatives to traditional diagnostic testing.

Last year, GE Reports reported new production processes could be the key to breaking the imaging isotope shortage. GE Healthcare and SHINE Medical Technologies tested and verified a new way to manufacture Mo-99 in an effort to find a new source of the isotope to help break through the supply bottleneck. “Our customers — clinics, hospitals, and imaging specialists — rely on a secure supply of technetium-99m from Mo99 to make sure that they can conduct important diagnostic imaging scans their patients need,” general manager of core imaging for GE Healthcare Jan Makela says. “We are working hard to make this key isotope readily available and cost-effective for them.”

While SHINE’s alternative Mo-99 can be integrated into today’s Tc-99m production methods without changing the process, the company is not expected to begin commercial production until 2019. NVLS Chairman and CEO, Paul Crowe, explained, “In the future, many healthcare systems may no longer rely on Tc-99m as their go-to radiotracer. They’re starting to look for other medical isotopes that could be used instead. NVLS is currently working to meet this need with more affordable, readily accessible radioisotopes that are up to 30 percent less expensive than other products on the market.”

According to the company statement, Tc-99m is currently used in more than 80 percent of single-photon emissions computed tomography (SPECT) scans, up to 70,000 times each day. Some experts had predicted the anticipated shortage could drive prices up 15-fold. At a time when pressures are mounting to reduce healthcare costs and create greater efficiency in diagnosis and treatment of conditions, these rising prices are potentially disastrous.

The President of US Radiopharmaceuticals, Joel Timberlake, says, “Many healthcare systems rely on Tc-99m as their go-to nuclear medicine radiotracer, so they’re starting to look for other alternative medical isotopes that could be used. USR is currently working to meet this need with more affordable, readily accessible radioisotopes that are up to 30 percent less expensive than other products on the market.”

Some 15 million Americans undergo heart imaging studies each year, which traditionally used Tc-99m to visualize cardiac structures. If healthcare systems fail to utilize alternative radioisotopes such as thallium-201, patients could be forced to undergo more expensive and possibly riskier diagnostic procedures.