New source of isotope used by doctors is found

By Matthew L. Wald
New York Times / February 17, 2010

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WASHINGTON - As the worldwide shortage of a radioactive isotope used in millions of medical procedures worsens, officials say a new source for the substance has emerged: a nuclear reactor in Poland.

The isotope, technetium 99, is used to measure blood flow in the heart and to help diagnose bone and breast cancers.

Almost two-thirds of the world’s supply comes from two reactors; one, in Ontario, has been shut for repairs for nine months and is not expected to reopen before April, and the other, in the Netherlands, will close for six months starting Friday.

Radiologists say that the shortage has forced them at times to revert to inferior materials and techniques they stopped using 20 years ago.

Covidien, a company in St. Louis that purifies the material and packages it in a form usable by radiologists, is expected to announce today that it has signed a contract with the operators of the Maria reactor, near Warsaw, one of the world’s most powerful research reactors.

The Maria, a 36-year-old reactor, will fill only a small fraction of the gap left by the shutdowns at Chalk River, Ontario, and Petten, the Netherlands.

Still, Dr. Michael M. Graham, a professor of radiology at the University of Iowa and a member of the board of the Society of Nuclear Medicine, said the arrangement “could make the difference between being able to limp along and shutting down.’’