Medical Isotope Shortage Reaching Crisis Proportions

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Medical Isotope Shortage Reaching Crisis Proportions

by Lynn Shapiro, Writer | June 13, 2009

A fundamental controversy surrounds the Maples' readiness for operation. Nordion says the plants should be restarted--and is urging AECL to enlist an outside expert to assess the plant. However AECL was not available for comment. Note that in May 2008, the Government of Canada and AECL announced that the MAPLE project would be discontinued without disclosing a long-term plan for the supply of medical isotopes. In July 2008, MDS commenced arbitration against AECL.

Nordion's Chitra tells DOTmed News, "We've always been concerned that [the Canadian plant] and all the other reactors around the world are all over 40 years old. So in 1996, we entered into a contract with AECL for $145 million to build the two Maple reactors. We feel that MDS Nordion, a public company, invested over $350,000 million of its own money in the plant. We had a commercial contract with AECL and have paid them to complete the reactors."

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Chitra says the Maple reactors can provide 100 percent of world supplies and there are two reactors, providing built-in redundancy.

AECL Proves Inscrutable

AECL is difficult to gauge and its actions are unpredictable, perhaps due to secrecy related to security protocols. Nevertheless, the uncertainty adversely affects the medical community.

Dr. Graham tells DOTmed News that "the first time they shut down the Canadian reactor was in late 2007. It was down for about a month. And the reason it was shut down was that Nordion didn't replace a backup pump. Although the pump was an important backup, there was no real safety issue there, or a very marginal and arguable one. What was frustrating to everyone was the reactor was just sitting, when it could have been turned on."

He added, "Parliament in Canada become aware of AECL's actions and insisted AECL restart the reactor and that was the end of the crisis. About three weeks ago, there was discovery of a leak at the reactor. This time, there's is a genuine problem," Dr. Graham concedes.

Downstream Supplies

DOTmed asked downstream suppliers, Lantheus Medical Imaging and Covidien, how they were faring. Lantheus receives its molybdenum-99 supplies from Canada and Covidien gets its from the Netherlands.

William Dawes, Vice President, Manufacturing and Supply Chain for Lantheus, says, "Although Chalk River was our primary supplier, we have other suppliers in The Netherlands, in Brussels and another in France."

Attempting to further diversify, Lantheus signed an agreement with NTP Radioisotopes, a subsidiary of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, in May, to manufacture and supply an ongoing volume of molybdenum-99.