Canadian Isotope Landscape
The year 2018 marked the end of an era for medical isotope production in Canada, as the NRU reactor was taken out of services after six decades of supplying medical isotopes to the world. Nevertheless, Canada continues to play an important role on the global stage as a large scale producer and exporter of several key medical isotopes including Cobalt-60, Palladium-103, and Iodine-125. At home, new cyclotron facilities across the nation are increasing Canadians’ access to PET imaging, while active clinical and laboratory research programs are working with world-class GMP production facilities to bring new medical isotopes – and medical isotope-based diagnostics and therapies – to patients in Canada and around the world.
There are various reactor designs used globally, but they typically fall into two categories — research reactors, such as the NRU reactor found at Chalk River, ON., and McMaster University; and power reactors, such as those used by Bruce Power and Ontario Power Generation to produce electricity. Reactor production capabilities are defined by their neutron energy and flux. Accelerators fall into several categories that are defined by the type of particle (i.e. proton vs electron), the method (circular or linear), energy (in millions of electron volts, MeV) and intensity (in ampheres) of particle acceleration. In Canada, there are two primary types of accelerators used for medical isotope production — proton cyclotrons and electron linear accelerators (elinacs). Proton cyclotrons operate at low (<16 MeV, <100 μA), medium (16-24 MeV, 100 to 500 μA), intermediate (29-70 MeV, 100 to 1000 μA) and high (>100 MeV, >100 μA) capacity. All can be used to produce various medical isotopes. Hospital-based machines are typically low to medium capacity.
The landscape of medical isotope production in Canada is diverse, due in part, to the long-standing and world-class research into reactor and accelerator research. Canada is a leader in reactor construction and application for the production of medical isotopes that have been used globally for the past several decades. Canada relies on both domestic production and the global supply chain to provide medical isotopes to our hospitals.
History of Medical Isotopes and Nuclear Medicine
“As Canada’s nuclear university and home to the country’s only research reactor, McMaster is a leader in radioisotope R&D and innovation, and the world’s largest supplier of Iodine-125 — one of the top 10 medical radioisotopes. Our integrated suite of research facilities enables discoveries in medicine, clean energy, nuclear safety, materials and environmental science.”
Karen Mossman, Vice-President, Research, McMaster University
Canada’s Isotope Supply Chain
For more than 30 years, the four reactors at Bruce Power’s Bruce B station have been a reliable Cobalt-60 supply for Nordion, an Ottawa-based company. Bruce Power’s supply of Cobalt-60 helps to sterilize 40 per cent of the world’s single-use medical devices, including sutures, syringes, masks, gloves and more. The company recently began producing medical-grade Cobalt-60 with the first harvest being completed in March 2019.
BWXT Isotope Technologies provides its customers, who conduct life-saving medical procedures for patients around the world, the benefit of decades of experience in the development, manufacturing, packaging and delivery of medical isotopes and radiopharmaceuticals. Headquartered in Kanata, Ontario, BWXT Isotope Technologies employs over 150 highly skilled people in Kanata and Vancouver, British Columbia. BWXT Isotope Technologies is part of the BWXT nuclear power segment (NPG) of BWX Technologies, Inc.
Though it no longer directly produces significant quantities of isotopes, the Chalk River site of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories is actively involved in researching the processing and application of isotopes for medical purposes. It is well positioned to contribute to the advancement of isotope processing and finding new applications, as well as the design of new isotope production facilities.
Centre for Probe Development and Commercialization (CPDC) operates three cyclotron facilities in Ontario, located in Hamilton, Toronto (CanProbe, a joint venture between the University Health Network and the CPDC), and Ottawa (at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute).
CPDC has established a robust and reliable global supply of innovative diagnostic and therapeutic radiopharmaceuticals used daily for the detection and treatment of human diseases such as cancer. To date, CPDC manufactures and supplies 15 radiopharmaceuticals for clinical and commercial supply, and CPDC’s products collectively have helped with the diagnosis and treatment of more than 80,000 patients. These products include F-18, Lu-177, In-111, Ac-225, Ga-68, Tc-99m, Zr-89 and I-131.
McMaster University is Canada’s pre-eminent nuclear research institution. The Hamilton-based post-secondary institution is home to a unique suite of world-class nuclear research facilities that are anchored by the five-megawatt McMaster Nuclear Reactor (MNR). With the closure of Chalk River’s National Research Universal (NRU) reactor, MNR is now Canada’s only major neutron source and therefore a key national research resource. Medical Isotopes from McMaster treat more than 70,000 patients globally per year.
For decades, Ontario Power Generation’s (OPG) nuclear stations have not only provided clean, low-cost power for Ontarians, they have also been a world-leading source of life-saving medical isotopes. Since the 1970s, OPG has been successfully harvesting Cobalt-60 from reactors at its Pickering Nuclear GS. The Darlington Nuclear Generating Station east of Toronto is poised to become a major producer of a nuclear isotope used in the detection of heart disease and cancer. Ontario Power Generation announced that, pending regulatory approval, the facility would begin generation of Molybdenum-99 in 2021.
TRIUMF is a national university-owned and operated multidisciplinary facility with programs in particle and nuclear physics, accelerator science, quantum materials and life sciences. With 20 Canadian member universities, as well as dozens of collaborators and partners across the country and around the world, TRIUMF is a global hub for accelerator-based science. A critical component of the national isotope network, TRIUMF provides Canada with strategic advantage over growing global competition. Presently, approximately two-million doses of life-saving medical isotopes produced at TRIUMF each year are distributed to more than a dozen countries around the world.