CORVALLIS, Ore. -  Oregon State University will play a key role in a new national initiative announced today to produce domestic supplies of radioactive isotopes that are widely used to diagnose and treat cancer, heart disease and other medical issues.

The initiative, which is being led by The Phoenix Group and Columbia Nuclear International, Inc., aims to produce a reliable domestic supply of molybdenum-99 by 2012, to help address an isotope shortage that's being called a national health crisis.

The United States relies on two international sources of this isotope in Canada and the Netherlands, and in the past two years there have been major disruptions in supplies of this isotope due to safety issues, extended maintenance outages, and product recalls.

More than 90 percent of all hospitals and clinics in the U.S. have been affected by the isotope shortage, according to a survey last summer by the Society of Nuclear Medicine.

"We're proud to be participating in a project of such national importance," said Steven Reese, director of the Radiation Center at OSU. "The U.S. really should be producing its own supplies of these important isotopes, and this will be a significant step forward in helping to meet our nation's health care needs."

Shortages of isotopes, officials said, have sometimes forced doctors to do costlier procedures that may be less effective or expose patients to more radioactivity.

OSU's primary role in this initiative will be demonstrating the feasibility of producing molybdenum-99 using very small "research" nuclear reactors, such as the one megawatt reactor housed at the OSU Radiation Center.

According to Reese, in the initial experiments a tube will be lined with uranium and exposed to radiation in the OSU reactor core. This should cause the uranium to fission into various elements, about 7 percent of which are molybdenum. Further processing will then be done with the material at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratories in Richland, Wash., another partner in the initiative.

This approach, officials say, should produce the needed isotopes with technology that is less expensive, inherently safe, and has a simpler design than is used in much larger reactors.

Once the experiments at OSU and PNNL demonstrate the efficacy of the new technology, Columbia Nuclear International will develop a full-scale, commercial production facility that should be able to provide more than half of the U.S. demand for molybdenum-99 by 2012. To facilitate this, The Phoenix Group, a not-for-profit organization, will seek support from the philanthropic sector to fund the demonstration of the new production technology by 2010.

Because molybdenum-99 is produced through the fission of uranium and has a half-life of 66 hours, it cannot be produced and stored for long periods of time. It has to be produced on demand to supply hospitals and other nuclear medicine facilities.

When produced, molybdenum-99 decays into technetium-99m. This is the product used in about 16 million medical procedures each year in the U.S., including 80 percent of all nuclear medicine scans. It makes possible body scans for cancer, heart disease and kidney disease; and is also used to evaluate the skeleton, thyroid, and check for internal bleeding.

The U.S. shortage of these products recently became acute when Canada's reactor in Chalk River, Ontario, which produces more than 60 percent of the U.S. supply, was shut down earlier this summer. It is expected to remain closed through early 2010.  The Netherlands reactor is down for maintenance and will be offline for six months next year.

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Steven Reese, 541-737-2344