You may remember from the Background Guide a paragraph or two about the nuclear medicine crisis that involved failing/repairment of nuclear reactors that were largely responsible for the global supply of Technetium-99.
Technetium-99 is a decayed version of radioactive material molybdenum (a.k.a. Mo-99). It is a medical isotope that can pinpoint to which specific organ in a body contains cancerous cells, or are afflicted with diseases. Think of it as a “nuclear magic bullet” that swims through your body and lands exactly on any suspicious cells. It has been long used in diagnosing cancer, cardiovascular, and thyroid diseases, and can provide numerous other analytical data for the doctors (e.g. studying brain and kidney functions, looking at how a certain disease is affecting other parts of the body). One thing interesting to note is that it is hard to stockpile this TC-99 (and maybe attempt to combat the supply shortage) because TC-99 breaks down in merely SIX HOURS. But on the other hand that is good, because you don’t want a radioactive staying in your body any longer than is necessary…
According to experts, this shortage is expected to cause an acute supply shortage of TC-99 from March 2010, which is currently approximated at 40,000 doses a day in the U.S. alone.
Since May 2009, Chalk River reactor (Ontario, Canada) and the Petten reactor (the Netherlands) have closed down for maintenance (and won’t open for at least six months), causing an immediate and large-scale shortage to the global supply of these isotopes. By August 2009, the Society of Nuclear Medicine has surveyed more than 700 U.S. hospitals and found that at about 80% (non-emergency) of the patients have delayed procedures, without really knowing how long the delay would be.
Recently, however, Poland made a deal with Covidien, a U.S. based pharmaceutical company, to start operating nuclear reactors near Warsaw (capital city of Poland) to meet the overwhelming demand for tech-99. While this may help ease the consequence of the nuclear reactor failings in 2009, the deal is far from a solution that governments and businesses can immediately implement. To get the isotope from Poland to the Netherlands, where it will be processed into ready-made NM to be used largely in Europe, Covidien needs to go through at least 20 permits from five countries. And even when the NM is transited across to countries of demand, it is a whole new question whether or not (and how long it will take until) the country’s health agency will approve it for safe use.
This may provide “short-term improvements for patients in Europe,” said Dr. Robert Atcher, chairman of the Society’s domestic isotope availability task force. “However, this is only a short-term fix for a long-term problem.”
Indeed, with the Canadian and the Dutch reactors gone, the world has lost approximately two-thirds of the usual supply. To fight the overwhelming demand of the TC-99, even academic institutions such as the University of Missouri (which has one of the most powerful research reactors) are attempting to star their own developments.