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Building a European network for medical radionuclides

NPL and collaborators to substantially change the European landscape for novel and emerging medical radionuclides

NPL and collaborators today announce PRISMAP – The European medical radionuclides programme, which sets out to substantially change the European landscape for novel and emerging medical radionuclides.

Nuclear therapy and molecular imaging are widely used at hospitals for new promising medical procedures. They can drastically improve the outcome for many medical conditions and enable the treatment of disseminated cancer in particular. However, its effective development has long been limited by the difficult access to radionuclides not yet commercially available.

In nuclear medicine, a radioactive substance is introduced into a patient and finds its way to specific biological targets in the body. Depending on the radioactive properties of the radioisotope, it may emit radiation that can be detected with external detectors to visualise the distribution of the isotopes (SPECT, PET imaging); alternatively, it may emit charged particles like α or β- particles which deposit their energy locally (within μm to a few mm, namely from the size of a cell to the size of a metastasis), thereby only destroying cells located nearby, e.g. to treat a cancer with targeted radionuclide therapy (TRNT).

Out of the more than 3,000 different radioisotopes that scientists have synthesized in the laboratory, only a handful are regularly used for medical procedures, mostly for imaging, though the interest in TRNT has been growing in the last few years to treat advanced prostate cancer. One of the main limits to the development of novel radio-medicinal products is the access to radionuclides during the development and early biomedical research phases. PRISMAP aims to enable this development phase by providing access to novel radioisotopes of high purity grade for medical research.

The radioactive elements that are used in nuclear medicine are not available naturally and must be synthesised in the laboratory. There are two main paths: neutron irradiation in a nuclear research reactor or proton or alpha irradiation with a particle accelerator. The size and energy of the particle accelerator determines which radioisotope can be produced: small, compact machines are found in many hospitals, providing access to the radioisotopes used today. However, higher-energy machines are needed to produce novel radioisotopes currently not available.

When producing those novel radioisotopes, new challenges appear: the co-production of unwanted radioactivity which affects the quality of the medicinal product, may induce adverse effects to a patient, and can cause serious difficulties to waste management in a hospital environment. As such, novel purification techniques are required. Within PRISMAP techniques will be developed based on physical mass separation and radiochemistry to achieve high purity radioisotope production, which is appropriate for medicinal products.

In order to support the ongoing research across Europe and beyond, immediate access to novel radioisotopes will be provided by PRISMAP. A single-access platform has been established where the production and support capabilities are presented.

A network of world-leading, European facilities, including nuclear reactors, medium- and high-energy accelerators, and radiochemical laboratories, has been established to offer the broadest catalogue of radioisotopes for medical research. Mass separation is available at the CERN MEDICIS facility to provide the physical separation of isotopes of an element. This is completed by a network of biomedical research facilities who may host external researchers to perform their research close to the production facility when the isotopes are not suitable for long transport to their institution, or when the European licencing for novel radioisotopes has not yet been obtained.

Access to radioisotopes and associated facilities will be granted on an excellence selection basis, by applying for access to radioisotopes and, if necessary, to the complementary biomedical facilities. A selection panel consisting of experts in the fields of radioisotope production, molecular imaging and radionuclide therapy will select the best projects from the applicants. The first call for proposals will be launched before the end of 2021 for applications in the first quarter of 2022.

Through the PRISMAP consortium of 23 academic and research institutions across Europe, development towards the upscaling of the production of these novel radioisotopes will be investigated, in the form of novel production technology, new purification methods, and proof-of-concept investigations showing the development of new treatments from test bench to patient care.

New data will be generated and compiled towards the immediate and smooth adoption of the novel radioisotopes in medical environments though collaboration between research hospitals and metrology institutes, such as the National Physical Laboratory (NPL).  All the new findings will be used towards creating new teaching material for professionals in the various fields of this multi-disciplinary domain, as well as for training the next generation of professionals and advising the European Commission on these emerging radioisotopes.

Nuclear medicine research is a truly multidisciplinary approach, and to move forward, we need to build bridges between physicists, engineers, radiochemists, inorganic chemists, structural biologists, clinicians, medical physicists, dosimetrists, pharmacologists, and oncologists. PRISMAP – The European medical radionuclides programme, will certainly support the implementation of a multidisciplinary working concept in practice.

Image courtesy of CERN

23 Sep 2021