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Worldwide Shortage Of Isotopes For Medical Imaging Could Threaten Quality Of Patient Care

September 9, 2010

Twenty million medical scans and treatments are done each year that require radioactive isotopes, and scientists today described a global shortage of these life-saving materials that could jeopardize patient care and drive-up health care costs. They spoke at a symposium at one of the opening sessions of the 240th National Meeting of the American Chemical Society.

Medical isotopes are minute amounts of radioactive substances used to diagnose and treat a variety of diseases. Isotopes injected into the body can enable doctors to determine whether the heart has adequate blood flow; cancer has spread to a patient’s bones; and help diagnose gallbladder, kidney, and brain disorders. When delivered into a malignant tumor, isotopes can kill the cancer cells minimizing damage to nearby healthy tissue. The shortage of radioactive isotopes also threatens activities in other areas, including basic and environmental research, oil exploration, and nuclear proliferation, the scientists noted.

“Although the public may not be fully aware, we are in the midst of a global shortage of medical and other isotopes,” said Robert Atcher, Ph.D., MBA, in an interview. “If we don’t have access to the best isotopes for medical imaging, doctors may be forced to resort to tests that are less accurate, involve higher radiation doses, are more invasive, and more expensive.” Each day more than 50,000 patients in the United States receive diagnostic and therapeutic procedures using medical isotopes, particularly individuals with heart problems and cancer. Eight out of every 10 procedures require one specific isotope, technetium-99m, which has a “half-life” of only six hours. Half-life is the time it takes for 50 percent of a given quantity of a radioactive substance to “decay” and disappear. Thus, like other radioactive isotopes, technetium-99m can’t be stockpiled. It must be constantly made fresh, and distributed quickly to medical facilities.

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