By Tom Still

MADISON – An average of 40,000 Americans per day are given a radioactive isotope that acts as a light source within their bodies, illuminating cancerous tumors and heart problems that doctors otherwise couldn’t detect – short of surgery and other procedures that are riskier, more costly and less effective.

The supply of that isotope, used widely and safely for decades, is now threatened by a shortage of the core material – Molybdenum 99 – used to produce it for hospitals and clinics. It’s an emerging crisis with national and even international dimensions, yet a dilemma that could be solved by a Wisconsin company called Phoenix Nuclear Labs.

Scientists working with the Madison-based company believe they can generate the neutrons necessary to create Mo-99, an essential nuclear medicine tool, without using a nuclear reactor to do so. It’s a safer and more sustainable method than the status quo, which relies on production of Mo-99 from five retirement-age nuclear medicine reactors – two of which are now shut down, one perhaps permanently.

The idled reactors in Canada and the Netherlands supply 92 percent of all Mo-99 used in the United States, where some 25 million doses are given each year. Eighty percent of nuclear medicine scans use the isotope, called Technetium-99 after refined for clinical use, to detect cancer, heart disease or kidney illness.

The isotope allows physicians to examine bones and blood flow, among other things, then disappears within hours from the body, minimizing the dose of radiation received by the patient. Because of its short half-life, the Mo-99 isotope cannot be stockpiled and must be used within a week after it is produced.

Already, nuclear medicine doctors and pharmacists nationwide are reporting widespread shortages, with thousands of procedures delayed each day. While they can handle part of the caseload in other ways, doctors say it’s only a matter of time before more patients miss necessary scans – or pay much more to get them.

“It’s possible some deaths could occur,” Dr. Michael Graham of the University of Iowa, president of the nation’s largest nuclear medicine association, told the Los Angeles Times.

Enter Phoenix Nuclear Labs, a company with ties to scientists such as Dr. Paul DeLuca, a nuclear medicine pioneer at the UW-Madison and its current provost; Dr. Thomas “Rock” Mackie, co-founder of TomoTherapy; and Dr. Harrison Schmitt, one of the last astronauts to walk on the moon in 1972 and an adjunct professor of nuclear engineering at UW-Madison. The company president is Dr. Greg Piefer, who holds a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the UW-Madison.

The technical details of how the company would produce Mo-99 would fill a book, but imagine a device through which electrically charged particles bombard a specific type of “plasma,” or hot, ionized gas. That produces neutrons which in turn strike a low-grade uranium solution, which produces the Mo-99. There is almost no long-lived nuclear waste, no risk of an explosive accident, and it’s about 20 times less expensive to construct than a nuclear medicine reactor – if one could be approved at all.

The process may also benefit national security: The Phoenix Nuclear process could be operated at home or abroad without fear of the waste being reused to make atomic weapons. That’s not true of the current isotope production process, which some observers believe is vulnerable to nuclear terrorism.

The security angle is one reason why Piefer and Phoenix Nuclear were selected to present at the third annual “Resource Rendezvous,” a conference that attracts federal science and technology experts to review Wisconsin technologies and companies. The conference, organized by the Wisconsin Security Research Consortium, will be held Wednesday at UW-Milwaukee.

“This system offers a near-term solution for a very real problem that is affecting patients today,” Piefer said. “The core technology has been demonstrated over decades. Now, we’re putting it to use to improve nuclear medicine. Over time, there will be energy and security applications, as well.”

As the isotope shortage gains national attention, look for a Wisconsin company to be a part of the solution.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.