06/11/2012 12:14 EDT | Updated 08/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Medical isotope quality mimicked without reactor

An alternative source of medical isotopes is just as reliable as reactor-based isotopes for producing an image, researchers in Alberta say.

Investigators are testing other ways to produce medical isotopes following shutdowns at the Chalk River nuclear reactor in Ontario and other reactors worldwide.

A University of Alberta team said today it has proven the isotopes can also be created in a device known as a cyclotron.

The researchers say it provides an image that is just as reliable as reactor-based isotopes.

Forty per cent of the world supply of medical imaging isotopes are produced at the Chalk River facility.

When the facility shut down in 2009 for more than a year, doctors scrambled for other suppliers and technologies to diagnose some cancers and heart ailments.

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

Future isotopes for medical use

The Conservative government ruled out building a new reactor and invited proposals to make the technetium-99m isotope without a reactor.

The Alberta team was able to produce viable quantities of high-quality technetium-99m using a 19-mega-electron-volt cyclotron, a circular particle accelerator, said Dr. Sandy McEwan, a researcher with the University of Alberta and medical director with Alberta Health Services' Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton.

McEwan said the research shows there is a "potentially valid alternative to reactor-produced medical isotopes."

"What this research has given us is the confidence to go to Health Canada … and say, 'Look we can make this in quantity, we can make this in a way which is compliant with your expectations and we believe that we can show you that this should be the way this isotope should be made for future medical use,'" McEwan said in an interview with CBC Edmonton AM host Rick Harp.

Results from the first human clinical trials were presented recently at the annual Society of Nuclear Medicine meeting in Miami.

The next step is to scale up production from the clinical trial stage to make the 500 doses of isotopes that are used daily by hospitals and clinics in the Edmonton area, McEwan said.

A number of companies and researchers are also trying to develop ways to produce the isotopes. Efforts are underway separately in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec.