UBC scientists use SUV-sized particle accelerators for medical isotope production

UBC scientist Francois Benard and a team of scientists from TRIUMF are shifting hospitals away from the dependence of aging and failing nuclear reactors towards using small car-sized cyclotrons.

Currently, bone blood and full-body medical scans used to determine and treat various diseases rely on technetium-99m, a medical isotope used for medical imaging. Production of the isotope is carried out by large nuclear reactors -- a costly process, especially in Canada.

The only producer of technetium-99m in Canada is the Chalk River nuclear reactor in Ontario, which, according to Benard, is old and prone to failures. The isotope is produced from uranium using reactors, and produces significant amounts of nuclear waste.

Now that the Chalk River reactor is to be decommissioned, Benard and his team are looking for a better, more sustainable alternative.

“We wanted a solution that was more cost effective, more environmentally friendly and local to Canada, specifically to us here in B.C.,” said Benard.

The team turned towards the use of cyclotrons, which in 1971 were tested to make very small quantities of the technetium-99m isotope. According to Benard, this technology was appealing because cyclotrons are exponentially smaller than nuclear reactors.

Benard and his team have been able to prove the production of the key medical isotopes, Tc-99m, on SUV-sized cyclotrons in use across the country.

As a result of their smaller scale, cyclotrons are also much more cost effective, said Benard. “With the cost of building one nuclear reactor, roughly about 1 to 2 billion dollars, you could make 100 to 200 cyclotron facilities.”

Benard said the team has been able to achieve all of their goals. Through the cyclotron’s production of technetium-99m, the team believes they have produced the technology needed to avoid the shortage of medical isotopes looming over North America with the decommissioning of the Chalk River reactor.

The cyclotron produces no waste when making the isotopes and is small enough that production can be made local to individual hospitals world wide.

While the team awaits medical trial and approval for use in hospitals, they will continue working on further improving the cyclotrons.

“Our team will keep working to make the cyclotrons faster and more efficient to develop and advance this technology as much as we can,” said Benard.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the research team created cyclotrons. In fact, the team has proven that particle accelerators can sufficiently produce medical isotopes for large patient areas. Small particle accelerators are already widely used and not a new technology. The article has been updated to reflect this fact. The Ubyssey regrets the error.