An average of 40,000 Americans per day are given a radioactive isotope that acts as a light source within their bodies, illuminating cancerous tumors and heart problems that doctors otherwise couldn’t detect – short of surgery and other procedures that are riskier, more costly and less effective.
The supply of that isotope, used widely and safely for decades, is now threatened by a shortage of the core material – Molybdenum 99 – used to produce it for hospitals and clinics. It’s an emerging crisis with national and even international dimensions, yet a dilemma that could be solved by a Wisconsin company called Phoenix Nuclear Labs.
Scientists working with the Madison-based company believe they can generate the neutrons necessary to create Mo-99, an essential nuclear medicine tool, without using a nuclear reactor to do so. It’s a safer and more sustainable method than the status quo, which relies on production of Mo-99 from five retirement-age nuclear medicine reactors – two of which are now shut down, one perhaps permanently.
The idled reactors in Canada and the Netherlands supply 92 percent of all Mo-99 used in the United States, where some 25 million doses are given each year. Eighty percent of nuclear medicine scans use the isotope, called Technetium-99 after refined for clinical use, to detect cancer, heart disease or kidney illness.
The isotope allows physicians to examine bones and blood flow, among other things, then disappears within hours from the body, minimizing the dose of radiation received by the patient. Because of its short half-life, the Mo-99 isotope cannot be stockpiled and must be used within a week after it is produced.