Tuesday, September 15, 2009
UNM Site To Make Isotopes
By Winthrop Quigley
Journal Staff Writer
The University of New Mexico Cancer Center and medical technology colossus Siemens Corp. are expected to announce today that they are teaming up to make the center the hub of Siemen's medical isotope business in the region.
Siemens will install two isotope-making cyclotrons deep beneath the Cancer Center's new $90 million, 200,000-square-foot facility. One will be staffed by Siemens employees and will produce commercial isotopes for the Southwestern market. The other, staffed by UNM, will produce experimental isotopes for Cancer Center research.
The isotopes are used primarily to diagnose, locate and stage cancer cells.
UNM will lease both cyclotrons for 15 years.
Siemens, which would only say it expected to spend in the seven figures for the new Albuquerque hub, expects to service customers for positron emission tomography isotopes (PET) within a 300-mile radius of Albuquerque when operation begins March 1. Today, most of those isotopes are shipped to Albuquerque from Phoenix.
At least 12 people are expected to be hired to work in the commercial cyclotron operation. Cancer Center director Cheryl L. Willman told the Journal that Siemens will require even more staff to build a logistics system to service its customers in the region.
Willman said all area users of positron-emitting isotopes should experience lower costs because they will need smaller shipments.
Isotopes used in positron-emission tomography studies have very short half-lives, so large quantities must be shipped to New Mexico customers to ensure enough useful material remains for PET scans and other procedures, Willman said.
Siemens has leased 4,000 square feet of Cancer Center space for its cyclotron and radiopharmacy operation. UNM will operate its research cyclotron in 1,000 square feet adjacent to Siemens.
"There hasn't been a reliable supply of isotopes in Albuquerque," said Markus Lusser, a Siemens vice president. "That's why Siemens in cooperation with UNM decided to form this partnership."
Lusser said the company was also attracted by the Cancer Center's research capabilities and its relationship with Los Alamos National Laboratory, which does medical isotope research.
"This allows us to do more than at an average site," Lusser said.
Willman said that among other things, the Cancer Center is working on new isotopes and chemicals known as biomarkers to deliver radiation to an estrogen receptor that center researchers discovered. That receptor promotes the growth of most female cancers, Willman said.
Siemens operates at 51 other radioisotope hubs around the world, but because of New Mexico's research capabilities, the UNM hub has the potential "to be a key site for Siemens in the development of new pharmaceuticals," Lusser said.
Lusser declined to say how much Siemens will spend on its Albuquerque hub except to say it will be in the seven figures. He also would not disclose how much the company expects to produce commercially in Albuquerque.
The isotopes generated in this new program will not help relieve the ongoing supply problems of another vital isotope called molybdenum-99 that is produced through nuclear fission. The shutdown of two aging nuclear reactors in Canada and Europe has resulted in spotty supplies in the United States which several years ago gave up on plans to produce the same material at Sandia National Laboratories.
The shortage became severe after the closure in May of a 52-year-old reactor in Canada that provided one-third of the U.S. supply of molybdenum-99.
"The bottom line is, there's no simple solution, and there are no immediate remedies," Jeff Norenberg, the University of New Mexico's director of radiopharmaceutical sciences, said at the time. "Now, 90 percent of the isotopes used in the U.S. are made outside the U.S."
The U.S. Department of Energy in 2000 scrubbed plans to produce radioactive medicines, including molybdenum-99, at Sandia on assurances that two new reactors in Canada would produce ample supplies. Canada abandoned the project after technical problems arose.