Government scrutinizes strategic importance of nuclear medicine research

February 14, 2006

The Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health are collaborating on a three-quarter of a million dollar study to determine the importance of nuclear medicine research and to recommend ways to overcome problems that have dogged its pursuit.

The Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health are collaborating on a three-quarter of a million dollar study to determine the importance of nuclear medicine research and to recommend ways to overcome problems that have dogged its pursuit.

The study's existence came to light Jan. 31 during a National Press Club meeting where Society of Nuclear Medicine president Dr. Peter Conti asked NIH chief Dr. Elias Zerhouni about cuts to nuclear medicine research at DOE totaling $30 million.

Despite intense lobbying, the SNM failed to persuade the government in November to reauthorize long-standing DOE support of research for radioisotope discovery and nuclear medicine scanner design.

Zerhouni announced that the DOE-NIH study was commissioned to determine the strategic importance of nuclear medicine research.

"The question is whether you fund for 50 years the same centers over and over again, or do you fund on a competitive basis the best ideas that come in," he said, referring to DOE programs originating with the Atoms for Peace program of the 1950s.

Although Conti expressed dismay that the SNM had not been informed earlier about the study, he was encouraged about the NIH-DOE collaboration.

"This is positive. At least it shows that somebody cares about nuclear medicine research and wants to study it. That's a lot better than cuts made because it is thought to have no value," Conti said.

The DOE and NIH plan to contract with the National Academies' Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board and the Board of Health Science Policy to conduct the 13-month investigation. The NRSB has agreed in principle to participate, said board director Kevin Crowley. Implementation will proceed after the DOE and NIH work out final details concerning funding.

Plans call for the NRSB to recruit a 15-member committee to research and write the report, according to Belinda Seto, deputy director of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering and project officer for the contract. Members may be drawn from academia, medical practice, the nonprofit community, and possibly industry. DOE is set to spend $496,000 on the study, while NIH will contribute $248,000.

Planning documents for the study identify four issues for investigation:

  • future needs for radiopharmaceutical development for the diagnosis and treatment of human disease

  • future needs for computational and instrument development for more precise localization of radiotracers in normal and aberrant cell physiologies

  • impediments to the entry of promising new radiopharmaceutical compounds into clinical trial and strategies to overcome these problems

  • short- and long-term strategies to overcome probable shortages of isotopes and qualified radiochemists to perform nuclear medicine research

The final report will probably be ready for publication about 14 months after organizing efforts begin, Crowley said.

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