11/01/2011 04:38 EDT | Updated 01/01/2012 05:12 EST

TRIUMF Project Gives Canada A Global Edge In Medical Isotopes

AP File

VANCOUVER - Construction has begun to expand a Vancouver lab where scientists will try to find new ways to solve the global shortage of medical isotopes used to treat and diagnose diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

Thirteen universities are involved in the project at TRIUMF, which is located at the University of B.C. and is Canada's national lab for particle and nuclear physics.

Canada produces about 40 per cent of the world's most commonly used medical isotopes.

Tim Meyer, spokesman for TRIUMF, said Tuesday that Canada produces isotopes that are used in about eight of 10 medical scans to diagnose cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

By 2015, the project led by the University of Victoria could help find a new way to produce medical isotopes, which are made at few facilities around the globe.

"The expectation is that it will demonstrate and identify which isotopes are best and those will be optimized for production and sales."

Meyer said the $63-million federal and provincial project will likely enable scientists to do research on an isotope that's been shown in preliminary studies to destroy cancer cells.

"Rather than having to surgically remove a tumour or use external radiation treatment or chemotherapy we could actually inject a small amount of a substance and it would only seek out and destroy the cancer no matter where it is in your body," he said.

"This facility in Canada is actually going to have unique capabilities. We're competing to have Canada be an isotope centre of excellence globally and we're going to be using a wider array of technologies, which means we'll have access to more isotopes with more purity and more availability than most of our competitors," he said.

TRIUMF opened in 1979 and began focusing on isotopes about 15 years ago, ahead of its competitors, Meyers said.

"We have this opportunity to stay out front and build a little bit of an edge so we will have the first scientific access to some of those isotopes."

Most of the world's medical imaging isotopes were produced with the nuclear reactor in Chalk River, Ont. But the plant was shut down in May 2009 when a pinhole-size radioactive water leak was found. The original month-long closure dragged on for more than a year.

That left doctors scrambling to make do with an erratic supply of medical isotopes.

Chalk River resumed operations last August but is scheduled to close by 2016.

The Conservative government has said a new reactor won't be built and that it would find other ways to make isotopes.