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Radioisotopes and cancer imaging

September 22, 2010

Found in Radioisotopes

Performing PET/CT scans is not simply a matter of purchasing a machine and installing it into a hospital room. We must produce the very short-lived radioactive tracers (radioisotopes), which we use to detect cancer, in close proximity. Since they are radioactive, these tracers disappear spontaneously very quickly, within a matter of minutes to hours.

While this short time frame can pose logistical hurdles, it is ultimately a good thing, as we can make useful images without harming patients since the radioactivity goes away very quickly.  In addition, we don’t leave any radioactive byproduct that could contaminate the environment.

Producing these radioisotopes requires a cyclotron — a machine that can transform non-radioactive matter into radioactive atoms.  In addition to the cyclotron, special labs are also needed to make the radioactive glucose and other radiotracers for clinical use.

For the past five years we have relied on our partners at TRIUMF, located on the UBC campus, to provide us with isotopes. TRIUMF is a nuclear physics laboratory and they have really helped us. However, we were using as much as they could produce to feed a single scanner in Vancouver.

The B.C. government decided to fund the installation of a new cyclotron at the BC Cancer Agency in Vancouver, so that we could improve the availability of PET/CT imaging in B.C.  We’re looking forward to announcing the opening of our new facility where we will be able to make and supply our own radioisotopes, both for the clinical program and for medical research.

Many of you may have may have heard about the Chalk River isotope crisis. This does not affect the types of isotopes we use in our clinical and research programs at the BC Cancer Agency. However, this has led us to search for new solutions to solve this crisis, and we have received funding to see how we could use cyclotrons to avoid the use of nuclear reactors to make technetium — the isotope that is currently in short supply.  This would not be possible without our own cyclotron.