May 22, 2009

Nuclear Reactor Shut Down Will Impact Hospitals

The shut down of a Canadian nuclear reactor has forced makers of medical isotopes, used for diagnostic imaging, to search for new suppliers. 

The 50-year-old reactor, owned by Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd, was shut down by Canadian health officials after a small leak was found.

The reactor, which produces nearly a third of the world's medical isotopes, is expected to be out of operation for many months.

Currently, only five nuclear reactors produce molybdenum-99 or Mo-99, which is a vital part of diagnostic tests for heart disease and cancer.

"It's going to cause a shortage and it's going to cause a price rise. Those are unavoidable negative consequences," said Stephen Brozak, president of WBB Securities.

According to Robert Atcher, president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine, the shutdown will have a dramatic impact on patients in North America.

"That reactor supplies about half of the clinics and hospitals in the United States," he told Reuters News. "About 8 million of our studies are imperiled because that reactor is offline."

Lantheus Medical Imaging, a major distributor of the molybdenum-99 lead-lined capsules called generators, receives most of its supply from the Canadian reactor.

The medical isotopes are small quantities of radioactive material that are used to perform nuclear medicine imaging tests. The isotopes are injected into patients so they give off energy that can then be read by special cameras.

Bill Dawes, of Lantheus Medical Imaging, says the company is supplementing some of its isotope supply through a deal with a reactor in South Africa.

"It's going to mean that a large percentage of the procedures that would normally be completed and a large number of the patients that would be served will be left unserved for the duration of this shutdown," he said.

Dawes added that some patients will likely perish from the shutdown.

According to Dr. Michael Graham, director of nuclear medicine at the University of Iowa, working reactors have often shipped Mo-99 from Europe and South Africa to help hospitals along in previous reactor shutdowns.

MDS Inc, whose MDS Nordion division distributes Chalk River's medical isotopes, said the company is working to obtain an additional supply, but expects a worldwide shortage of isotopes.

This is the second shutdown at Chalk River in less than two years. In 2007, a production halt cost MDS $9 million in profit losses.

According to Joanna Schooler, spokeswoman for generator distributor Covidien Ltd, her company's supply of Mo-99 comes from the Netherlands.  She added that Covidien can also obtain isotopes from Belgium, France, and South Africa.

Because Mo-99 has a half life of just 66 hours, supply disruptions have an immediate impact, said Graham.

"If we don't get another generator next week, by the end of the week we will be unable to do any (nuclear medicine) studies," he added.

According to Graham, the wane in supply will mean less efficient and more costly imaging tests for patients.

Image Courtesy Wikipedia