July 24, 2009

Crucial radioisotope in short supply

A world-wide shortage of a crucial radioisotope threatens to set back the quality of medical care several decades, U.S. doctors said.

Technetium-99m is used in more than 40,000 medical procedures in the United States each day. The isotope is key to tests for cancer, kidney function and cardiac disease.

The two aging atomic reactors that provide most of the world's supply of the isotope are closed for repairs.

A 51-year-old reactor in Ontario, Canada, has been idle since mid-May because of safety problems and may never reopen, The New York Times reported Friday. The other major supplier, a 47-year-old Dutch reactor at Petten, is closed for at least a month and it's future is uncertain.

This is a huge hit, said Dr. Michael M. Graham, president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine. Without adequate supplies of technetium-99m, the quality of medical care drops back to the 1960s, Graham said.

The White House is coordinating an effort to find new sources, while a bill introduced in Congress would authorize $163 million over five years to assure new production, the Times reported.