(Reuters) - Several companies are in talks with Canadian scientists on commercializing a new method to produce a crucial medical isotope without using feedstock from a nuclear reactor, one of the lead scientists said on Tuesday.
Researchers at the TRIUMF physics lab in Vancouver, British Columbia, say their method, showcased at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meetings in Vancouver on Monday, would produce technetium-99m without using feedstock molybdenum-99, which is mainly produced at nuclear reactors using enriched uranium.
Technetium-99m is used in medical imaging, particularly to diagnose cardiac problems, and is now usually created from decayed moly-99.
The new method uses cyclotrons, devices already installed in many research hospitals to produce other types of isotopes.
Principal investigator Tom Ruth said companies interested in working with the team include Canada's Nordion Inc, along with Lantheus Medical Imaging Inc, Covidien, GE Healthcare, General Electric Co's healthcare equipment unit, and Cardinal Health Inc.
He would not say what stage discussions were at with any party.
"They would be the ones that would take the technology and maybe they would contract the cyclotrons in a province or across Canada or whatever country, and run it as a business," Ruth said.
Ottawa-based Nordion is one of the world's largest suppliers of molybdenum-99. It processes it at an aging nuclear reactor at Chalk River, Ontario, one of the few reactors in the world that produces commercial quantities of the substance.
Canada closed the facility over safety concerns in fall of 2007 and again from May 2009 to August 2010, causing a worldwide shortage of the isotopes, pushing up prices and encouraging many of Nordion's customers to diversify suppliers. Nordion is still feeling the after-effects of the shutdowns.
The Chalk River reactor has been licensed to operate until 2016, but its future beyond then has not been decided.
Ruth said the shutdowns had inspired the project.
"The government of Canada said, let's find an alternative, because the medical community was up in arms," he said.
Natural Resources Canada funded four projects in a "friendly" competition to find a better way.
The alternative process starts with moly-100, rather than enriched uranium, and uses a cyclotron to turn it into technetium-99m. It's not yet known how much testing Health Canada would require before approving the process.
"From the medical perspective it's identical to what would be coming out of a generator," Ruth said.
At least a dozen Canadian hospitals have cyclotrons, and there are more than 100 in the United States, he said.
One hurdle will be to secure a steady supply of moly-100, a relatively rare isotope of molybdenum. But Ruth said the new process will be commercially viable.
"We feel that with the economic model our price for the technetium would be competitive with what's available now," he said.