06/09/2013 09:25 EDT | Updated 08/09/2013 05:12 EDT

B.C. breakthrough in medical isotopes race

B.C. scientists say they've made a breakthrough in a race to find a new source for medical isotopes by developing a particle accelerator known as a cyclotron at the BC Cancer Agency.

"It really shows that if you trust scientists with a mission that we can really deliver on a mandate we're given," said Francois Benard, scientific director of the centre for functional cancer imaging at the BC Cancer Agency.

Radioisotopes are vital diagnostic tools used on 30,000 Canadians each week to detect problems like cancer or heart disease.

Much of the world's supply is made in Canada at the Chalk River nuclear reactor in Ontario. In 2009, an unplanned shutdown at the aging facility triggered a worldwide shortage.

- Global supply under pressure

And the government plans to stop producing isotopes in Chalk River, by 2016.

"We've demonstrated we can make enough isotopes for the Vancouver area on a routine reliable basis," said Benard at the Richmond facility that makes the machines.

Some cyclotrons are as large as a football field, but the new machines are small enough to fit in a couple of rooms in a hospital.

The cyclotrons work by accelerating a particle inside the drum, then colliding it with another, so it gets unstable and radioactive.

"They succeeded beyond our expectations and before the timeframe, which is 2016," said Conservative MP Wai Young.

There are already more than a dozen across Canada, which these researchers think could supply medical isotopes for the entire country.