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How Ontario Is Leading the Way in the Medical Isotopes Field

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Jason Van Wart

President, Laurentis Energy Partners

Ontario-based Laurentis Energy Partners is an innovative leader and producer of medical isotopes, which are transforming global health care. 

What do nuclear power and health care have in common? A lot, actually. Medical isotopes generated from Ontario’s CANDU nuclear power plants help people in Canada and globally to enjoy a healthier and safer quality of life. Many stable and radioactive isotopes play an enormous role in medicine, medical imaging, medical device sterilization, new drug development, neutron research, border security, food preservation, and much more. And when it comes to technology advancements and the production of isotopes, Ontario is leading the way.

Understanding medical isotopes 

“Life-saving medical isotopes from Ontario’s nuclear power plants are used to diagnose or treat disease,” says Jason Van Wart, President of Laurentis Energy Partners, a subsidiary of Ontario Power Generation (OPG). “By harnessing the energy released by these isotopes, Ontario has the capability to provide essential services such as cancer treatment, sterilization, and the diagnosis of diseases for the medical and industrial worlds.” 

Over the past decade, the demand for medical isotopes has grown exponentially, with exciting advances in the field. 

Aerial shot of OPG’s Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Clarington, Ontario, Canada

“OPG’s CANDU reactors offer unique advantages in producing these valuable life-saving isotopes. The ability to produce vast quantities of isotopes and the reliability of production provided by CANDU reactors cannot be found elsewhere,” says Van Wart. “Laurentis, along with our partners, have invested heavily in developing industry-leading technology at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station in Clarington, Ontario. Others have done this on a much smaller scale, but the irradiation capability now in-service at OPG’s Darlington station is unparalleled. This work has made Ontario a world-leader in the production of medical isotopes, and we’re excited to offer our sizeable production capabilities to the world’s medical isotope manufacturers.” 

OPG has 10 CANDU nuclear power plants in Ontario, all with the potential capacity to produce isotopes for use in nuclear medicine. As a wholly owned commercial subsidiary of OPG, Laurentis Energy Partners has the demonstrated technology, skill, and know-how to plan and support other nuclear power operators in developing their medical isotope production. 

Isotope irradiation system airlock, which ensures the reactor containment boundary is maintained during all system operating configurations.

“Nuclear medicine really requires two components to come together — the ability to make high-purity isotopes, which Laurentis does in conjunction with its various partners, and the ability to deliver those isotopes to the exact spots in the body where they’re needed using a ‘targeting vector,’” explains Van Wart. “The advancement of ‘vectors’ — which attach themselves to the desired target cells in the body — has dramatically improved the effectiveness of medical isotopes in treating diseases such as metastatic cancers. Because they work so well, there’s huge demand for these life-saving isotopes.” 

Ontario is up for the challenge and is prepared to meet supply needs.  

A world leader

Based in Canada and with operations in Europe, Laurentis is an innovator and leader in the production and capture of life saving isotopes, as well as the clean energy industry at large, offering expertise for nuclear power utilities in the areas of operations and maintenance, inspections, project management and engineering, and regulatory support. 

LEP employees outside the heavy water transfer station which supplies the isotope irradiation system to transport target material to the reactor.

“We’ve built meaningful relationships and partnerships, use custom-designed tools and systems, and are focused on the execution of our isotope projects, as demonstrated by our ability to bring Helium-3 to market rapidly,” says Van Wart. 

Helium-3 (He-3) is one of the isotopes that Laurentis currently produces, along with Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99). It also has plans to recycle Heavy Water (D2O) and produce other medical isotopes, pending regulatory approvals. Ontario’s reactors are also currently producing Cobalt-60, Lutecium-177, and more. 

Exploring isotopes’ uses

Ontario, through Laurentis, is the world’s exclusive supplier of civilian-produced He-3. 

As a stable (non-radioactive) and inert gas, high-purity He-3 is extracted from tritium stored at OPG’s Darlington Station by Laurentis using a custom-designed tool. 

“He-3 has industrial and medical applications including quantum computing, neutron research, border security, and medical imaging – including the diagnosis of lung disorders,” says Van Wart. 

Photo credit: Brian Pieters | LEP employees review isotope irradiation system parameters at the main control panel (simulation)

Mo-99 is a critical life-saving isotope that decays into Technetium-99m (Tc-99m), an essential physiological diagnostic imaging agent used in about 80 per cent of all nuclear medicine imaging scans for the diagnosis of heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses. Tc-99m has a global market demand of 40 to 50 million patients annually. Laurentis, in collaboration with BWXT Medical, received regulatory approval of the necessary license from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission in November 2021, and will soon produce a stable domestic supply of Mo-99 from Darlington for use across North America. 

Millions of people around the world benefit from medical isotopes, and Ontario is at the forefront of this technology, developing new manufacturing methods to create these rare isotopes and partnering with research organizations, universities, and health care providers to help save lives around the world. 

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