Doug Wells, director of the Idaho
Accelerator Center, examines some materials
Image Credit: ISU Photographic Services

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ISU Researchers Attempt to Use Accelerators to Produce Isotopes for Medical Imaging

Researchers at the Idaho State University Idaho Accelerator Center are experimenting using nuclear accelerators instead of reactors to produce medical isotopes used annually for about 20 million medical imaging and treatment procedures in the United States.

If they are successful, southeast Idaho could become an area that produces medical isotopes commercially to supplement other medical-isotope sources.

“We are pursuing a new way of producing these isotopes that could have implications for the entire nation,” said Doug Wells, director of the ISU Idaho Accelerator Center. “If this works, we’re hoping to grow a local isotope production business that could make southeast Idaho a hub for medical isotope production.”

A medical isotope is a miniscule quantity of radioactive substance that is used in safe, cost-effective imaging and treatment of disease. Nuclear medicine is the medical specialty that utilizes medical isotopes for diagnosis and treatment of conditions such as cancer or heart disease.

According to the University of British Columbia Task Force on Alternatives for Medical-Isotope Production, about 80 to 85 percent of all nuclear medicine procedures use the medical-isotope Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99/Tc-99). About half of the 40 million nuclear medicine procedures that are annually done worldwide are completed in North America, mostly in the United States. However, no facilities in the United States manufacture Mo-99.

The United States imports 90 percent or more of the medical isotopes it uses. Most of North America’s Mo-99/Tc-99 is manufactured at a nuclear reactor using enriched uranium in Ontario, Canada. There are many safety and security concerns associated with producing the medical isotopes with reactors using uranium, Wells noted.

Furthermore, the Canadian reactor is scheduled to close in about two years. It was shut down for a short time in fall 2007, causing shortages of the medical isotope used most commonly in the United States, which in turn caused about 2.5 million Americans to go without ordered medical procedures. Business, governmental and educational entities in North America are searching for a replacement source or sources for the medical isotopes produced in Canada.

Accelerators are safer than reactors and do not produce the nuclear waste or security issues of transporting, storing and disposing enriched uranium.

“We’ve completed experiments to create medical isotopes with linear accelerators in the last couple of months that are highly encouraging,” Wells said. “We’re optimistic that we will be able to secure funding to continue this work and the private sector has expressed strong interest in the work we are doing.”

For more information on the Idaho Accelerator Center, visit

Andy Taylor
ISU Magazine