What is a medical isotope?
A medical isotope is a very small quantity of radioactive substance used in safe, cost-effective imaging and treatment of disease. New technologies enable medical isotopes to be delivered directly to the site of diseased cells. This is different from external beam radiation treatment where radiation is directed from outside of the body.

Who uses medical isotopes?
The medical specialty that utilizes medical isotopes for diagnosis and treatment is called nuclear medicine. The doctors that perform nuclear medicine procedures for cancer are called radiation oncologists.

What can medical isotopes do in diagnosis?
Radioisotopes give off energy that can be detected by special equipment. When small quantities are introduced into the body, the imaging equipment tracks their location and movement. This enables the doctors to learn more about the diseased tissues than a diagnostic procedure that just takes a picture from the outside. Medical isotope diagnostic procedures often facilitate an earlier and more complete disease diagnosis and therefore more rapid and effective treatment.

What can medical isotopes do in cancer treatment?
The energy given off by radioisotopes is very effective at zapping diseased cells. When they are delivered straight to the cancer cells, healthy tissues are spared while cancer cells are eliminated. Medical isotopes are delivered to the cancer cells in several different ways.

What different types of medical isotope treatments are there?
Brachytherapy is a form of cancer treatment where tiny "seeds" containing medical isotopes are accurately placed within and near a tumor. Brachytherapy is FDA approved and used for localized prostate cancer, liver cancer, head and neck cancers, gynecological cancers and others.

Radioimmunotherapy is a type of treatment where doctors inject antibodies that have isotopes attached like little backpacks. The antibodies (called monoclonal antibodies) then flow through the bloodstream and attach themselves to the cancerous cells. The energy from the medical isotopes is thus targeted straight to the cancer. This type of treatment is showing great promise for blood cancers such as leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. Most Radioimmunotherapy treatments are still in clinical trials.

Medical isotopes can also be directed to cancerous cells by a carrier that has an attraction to a certain part of the body. Chemical phosphonates can be paired with medical isotopes and sent to the bone, since phosphonate is a natural building block of bone matrix. FDA approved treatments for pain associated with cancer that has spread to the bone are based on this delivery system. The medical isotope Iodine has been used for thyroid treatment for years because the isotope itself is naturally attracted to the thyroid.

Where are medical isotopes made?
Medical isotopes are made in either accelerators or nuclear reactors. Today, the United States imports about 90% of the medical isotopes used in hospitals and clinics. Our supply of medical isotopes is at risk to global conditions and the internal conditions of other countries.

Do we have sufficient supplies of medical isotopes to meet growing demands?
No. A few key isotopes with the potential to take cancer therapy to a new level of effectiveness are simply not available. The researchers who want to explore their potential are unable to do so. In addition, the success of treatments currently in clinical trials and awaiting FDA approval could usher in a serious supply problem once FDA approval is obtained. The end result could be patients unable to be treated with an effective therapy.

Demand for medical isotopes are projected to grow in the range of 8% to 20% per year for the next 20 years. Current U.S. production resources are not adequate to meet the increasing needs for use of the isotopes in research, diagnosis, and treatment.

Is there a potential U.S. source for medical isotopes?
Yes. The United States has a number of small active providers of a few isotopes suitable for medical use. Most sources are small commercial accelerators or university research nuclear reactors such as the Missouri University Research Reactor. Other possibilities are the creation or use of reactors and accelerators which can produce the quantities and types to fully support all needs.

Is our country going to utilize this source of medical isotopes?
We don't know. Unless there is a demonstrated need, resources will not be built. But, without the resources, many attractive short lived isotopes are not available to researchers.

Is there anything I can do to support medical isotope research and treatments?
Yes. Let your voice be heard. Tell your Congressmen, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Health and Human Services that you support all efforts at furthering medical isotope research. Write, call, or email to let them know you support production facilities as well as increased funding for research. Secondly, join Citizens for Medical Isotopes. Your support will help us reach more cancer patients and their families. It will further our efforts to help researchers develop better ways to fight cancer and other diseases.

What if somebody I know has cancer?
Contact our office. We can provide information that may help your friend or family member make an informed decision about treatment options or clinical trials opportunities. We don't give medical advice and are not qualified to do so. However, we can direct people and their doctors to resources about medical isotope treatments.

Are there any other diseases treatable with medical isotopes?
Yes. Medical isotopes are proving very helpful in treating cardiovascular disease. They effectively prevent re-clogging of arteries (restenosis) when used in conjunction with angioplasty (balloon therapy). Rheumatoid arthritis is commonly treated in Europe with injections of medical isotopes. At the basic research level, medical isotopes have been shown to kill HIV/AIDS.


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Updated: March 12, 2008

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