Biomedical experts gather to discuss new medical radioisotope sources

June 24, 1998

Tritium accelerator could produce medical isotopesThe production of medical isotopes is on the agenda for discussion by members of the biomedical sciences and radiopharmaceutical communities at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on June

Tritium accelerator could produce medical isotopes

The production of medical isotopes is on the agenda for discussion by members of the biomedical sciences and radiopharmaceutical communities at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on June 25. The discussion will focus on a proposed plan by the Department of Energy and several commercial partners to build an Accelerator Production of Tritium (APT) facility at a Savannah River site in Aiken, SC.

The APT site could be a potential U.S. source of radioisotopes to be used in the manufacture of radiopharmaceuticals in nuclear medicine. The June 25 panel will include physicians and nuclear medicine experts such as Dr. Henry Wagner of Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Edward Coleman of Duke University Medical Center, and Dr. Eric Pitcher of Los Alamos National Laboratory, as well as representatives from U.S. radiopharmaceutical companies. The Medical University of South Carolina and the Economic Development Partnership of Aiken County are sponsoring the panel.

If the APT facility is built, it could represent a novel dovetailing of defense and medical technologies. Tritium derives from hydrogen and is used by the Department of Defense in nuclear weapons, but there has been no U.S. source of the radioisotope since the last operating reactors at the Savannah River site were shut down in the late 1980s. The DOD has been recycling tritium since the shutdown, but current tritium supplies are expected to run out by 2005, according to Mel Buckner, technical lead for the Savannah River Company in Aiken, which operates the Savannah River site for the DOE.

In 1995, the Department of Energy, through Los Alamos National Laboratories, initiated an exploration of two methods of tritium production in response to the DOD's request for a reliable tritium source. The options were either an APT site or a commercial nuclear reactor. By the end of this year, the DOE will choose whether to pursue either the APT option or a commercial reactor site.

Members of the biomedical sciences community, as well as representatives of the radiopharmaceutical industry, are recommending that the production of medical radioisotopes be included in the APT site's charter. If pursued, the facility could be completed by 2007 and, in theory, could produce a broader range of isotopes than a nuclear reactor.

The Savannah River APT could therefore furnish research, diagnostic, and therapeutic isotopes currently in short supply. Radionuclides tentatively on the list are copper-67, germanium-68, indium-111, palladium-103, rhenium-186, samarium-153, and strontium-82. Molybdenum will probably not be produced, despite the fact that much of the world's supply of the short-lived radioisotope is dependent on a single Canadian nuclear reactor (SCAN 6/10/97).

"We could produce moly if needed, but we've tried to concentrate on other isotopes that are in short supply right now and probably will be in the future," Buckner said.