MU reactor responds to international shortage of medical radioisotopes

The reactor’s operations produce 35 different isotopes for more than 18 different countries.

The MU Research Reactor Center will adjust its initial plans for maintenance to help mitigate a recent loss to the global supply of radioisotopes.

Radioisotopes are essential to the diagnosis and radiotherapy for cancer patients, said Carolyn Henry, interim associate director of research at the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center.

“A loss in the supply (of radioisotopes) could be devastating for patients who need those products for either diagnostic purposes or therapy,” Henry said. “Being able to have other options that will target tumors better, especially for patients who are resistant to more standard therapy like chemotherapy just adds to our available resources to fight cancer.”

Two international research reactors, located in the Netherlands and South Africa, have undergone an unplanned shutdown causing a disruption in the supply chain.

“When the two reactors went offline in an unscheduled fashion, we got the call from our customers asking if MURR could adjust its planned maintenance evolution,” MURR Associate Director Kenneth Brooks said. “We agreed so that cancer patients will continue to get treatments.”

Multiple issues could be the root of the shutdowns, MURR Director Ralph Butler said.

“Our understanding (is that) they are shut down due to technical and operational issues,” Butler said. “One of the past reactor outages at the reactor in the Netherlands was related to a fresh water pipe that supplied cooling water. When it appeared there was a breach in the pipe, all related systems were reviewed while the pipe was repaired.”

Under normal circumstances, MURR’s reactor would undergo a half day of inactivity each week, and a two-week offline period once every eight years to conduct a maintenance evolution.

During this time, the reactor’s beryllium reflector, a component which acts as a mirror to neutrons and allows the nuclear fission to occur, is replaced, Butler said.

“We have a year window in which to perform this maintenance, and it is because of that flexibility that we have been able to make our recent schedule adjustment,” Butler said.

MURR’s next maintenance evolution was initially scheduled to start Dec. 9, Brooks said.

“But to serve the needs of our customers, we will now do our maintenance revolution in Jan. 6,” Brooks said. “We are hoping the other reactors will come back online (by the time we go offline). They are forecasting that at least one of them will come back in a timely fashion.”

A reactor in Belgium will also extend its planned operating cycle to better meet demands, Butler said.

Brooks said this surge in demand for radioisotopes is due to the short-lived nature of many radiopharmaceuticals.

One of MURR’s major products is Samarium 153, an active ingredient in Quadramet, a nuclear medicine developed by MU researchers.

Originally found effective in treating dogs with bone cancer, Quadramet has also proven effective in treating human patients, Henry said.

“In my research here, I have looked at ways to combine that therapy with others to try to allow patients with bone cancer to not have to undergo an amputation,” she said. “We are also looking at new formulations of radiopharmaceuticals that are similar to that, but maybe easier to ship to more distant sites and third world countries.”

Butler said MURR supplies 35 different radioisotopes to researchers and medical communities in approximately 18 countries each year.

“There are a handful of research reactors that provide isotopes for the same purpose and each reactor doesn’t provide exactly the same isotope as others, so it is best when we are all available to ensure steady supply for patients,” he said. “MURR’s current isotope supply enables the treatment of well over a thousand patients each week.”

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