Scientists at the UK's National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) have developed a process for producing the country's first domestically produced supply of the medical radioisotope lead-212 (Pb-212).

(Image: Louis Reed/Unsplash)

The isotope is used in an emerging medical treatment called targeted alpha therapy, in which an alpha-emitting isotope is combined with a protein or antibody that specifically targets and destroy cancer cells while minimising damage to healthy tissue. However the use of these therapies has been constrained by global radioisotope supply shortages.

Health and nuclear medicine is one of NNL's four focus areas: the UK at present has no home-grown supply for the vast majority of radioisotopes, relying on imports from European facilities. Harvesting radioisotopes from existing nuclear material is a proven and beneficial approach to providing what is needed by medical clinicians and researchers, and the laboratory is working to develop new radioisotope production routes and start building this as a capability for the UK.

Pb-212, which has a half-life of 10.6 hours, can be recovered from thorium-232 by natural decay via thorium-228.

"Fifty years ago, the UK led the world in medical radioisotope research and production, yet today we rely on imports often from ageing facilities," NNL CEO Paul Howarth said. "Establishing a sovereign home-grown supply of these important medical radioisotopes would be transformative for healthcare in the UK and, given the global nature of the supply challenge, citizens of the other countries we supply.

"There is great demand from the healthcare profession for the UK to develop an indigenous supply of medical radioisotopes and this work is core to NNL's purpose of nuclear science to benefit society."

NNL's production process requires complex chemical separation and purification of nuclear material and builds on the laboratory's capability in this area, Health and Nuclear Medicine Director Nick Hanigan said. "Our plan now is to scale the production route in order to remove the significant supply constraints currently faced by hospitals," he added.

"This breakthrough development is a single aspect of our work on medical radioisotopes, a tool used on a daily basis by every hospital in the UK to diagnose and treat health conditions including many types of cancer, heart disease and thyroid disease and for the early detection and assessment of brain disorders such as epilepsy, Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia."

NNL is now working on quality assurance and scale-up work in collaboration with clinicians and academics. These include Queen Mary University of London and King's College London and their associated nuclear medicine departments.

Researched and written by World Nuclear News

Date: Wednesday, 01 June 2022
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