Robot delivers exact doses of radiopharmaceuticals

July 30, 2004

Radiation has no safe level, but exposure can be reduced in many ways. One way is a robot that draws doses of radiopharmaceuticals.Pharm-Assist, developed by NukeMed of Fishers, IN, robotically takes control of the syringe, draws the dose, assays it

Radiation has no safe level, but exposure can be reduced in many ways. One way is a robot that draws doses of radiopharmaceuticals.

Pharm-Assist, developed by NukeMed of Fishers, IN, robotically takes control of the syringe, draws the dose, assays it with a standard dose calibrator, then puts the syringe containing the dose into a lead-shielded "pig" for transport. The whole process takes about a minute.

"It works exactly like a pharmacy technician, but it eliminates hand exposure to radiation," said company founder John Zehner.

The rising volume of radioisotope formulations in PET and SPECT has made hand exposure an increasingly important issue, leading some pharmacies and busy nuclear medicine departments to install telemanipulators. These are cumbersome devices, however, that can slow workflow. Pharm-Assist eliminates hand exposure and, by automating the process, ensures reproducibility from one dose to the next.

"New techs have a hard time learning how to draw doses fast," Zehner said. "This eliminates the need for this training. Techs can touch the screen, and the dose is drawn."

Pharm-Assist, which is in prototype, was shown for the first time at the Society of Nuclear Medicine meeting in June. Sales manager Dave Bolles expects production to begin by the end of August. List price will be about $125,000.

The device looks like a hot cell. A tungsten-shielded box encloses robotic technology drawn largely from the automotive and drug manufacturing industries, which long ago turned to robotics to cut labor costs and increase precision.

Zehner makes no claim that Pharm-Assist will improve productivity. The robot can draw a dose 10 times faster than a human, but it has been set to a speed normally achieved by a technician.

"It works like a tech would work, so that it accommodates the existing methods by which drugs are delivered," he said.

Techs will be able to load up to 10 empty syringes into the device, but only one syringe will be filled at a time.

"We want the pharmacist to stay in control-to watch each dose fill," Bolles said.

The primary reason for using the robot is safety, and eliminating hand exposure to radiation is one motivation. Reproducibility is another, and Pharm-Assist is all about reproducibility. The drives, slides, tables, and motors are built to perform exactly the same, day after day, for 10 million cycles. That works out to more than 100 doses a day for the next 20 years.

Zehner, who sold his last venture, Eastern Isotopes, to radioisotope maker and distributor IBA, is targeting nuclear pharmacies and other nuclear medicine operations. Any lab drawing 10 to 15 doses per day could benefit, he said. Zehner, Bolles, and their colleagues are directly contacting the 300 nuclear pharmacies in the U.S., while seeking distributors that might help them spread their message.