Wisconsin Makers Of Key Medical Testing Agent Draw Visit From Trump Administration

Sep 11, 2020

Many medical centers use a radiation-releasing element called a radioisotope to help diagnose and treat health problems. Friday, a high-ranking member of the U.S. Department of Energy will visit two southern Wisconsin companies involved in making the radioactive isotopes.  The Trump administration official is expected to highlight support of a program to reduce dependence on foreign imports. 

Stop number one for Energy Department Deputy Secretary Mark Menezes will be a site near Janesville where construction crews are putting up a production building for SHINE Medical Technologies.

By 2022, the Wisconsin-based firm plans to start commercially making molybdenum, or moly-99.  Moly decays to technetium-99m, an isotope briefly injected, inhaled or taken orally into the human body as a tracer so medical devices can better spot things like cancer and heart disease. Unlike some other suppliers, SHINE will make the moly-99 in a direct process using uranium. Company founder and CEO Greg Piefer says the work is more complex, but has a bigger payoff.

"This fission-based approach produces a much more concentrated product at the end of the day. It's about 10,000 times more concentrated. In other words, you have about 10,000 more doses per unit volume,” Piefer tells WUWM.

SHINE founder and CEO Greg Piefer speaks to the Wisconsin Technology Council earlier this year.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

The use of uranium means radioactivity. But SHINE will use a low-enriched uranium (LEU.)  Piefer says the Janesville plant will be safe, contrasting its radiation level with that of commercial nuclear power reactor. 

"Our isotope facility produces something like 3,000 to 5,000 times less radiation than a reactor does. It doesn't have the possibility for meltdown like a reactor does, because of that.  Decay heat is less than that of a hair dryer in our plant,” Piefer says.

Four years ago, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) OK'd a construction permit for the Janesville plant. Now the federal agency, which is separate from the Department of Energy, is reviewing SHINE's application for an operating license. The NRC’s Brian Smith says one key thing to evaluate is how well SHINE would prevent or handle any accident.

"You look at what we call internal events and external events. External events are like natural phenomena — tornadoes, seismic events, heavy rains, heavy snowfalls, high winds. Accident sequences like that could impact the facility, and impact the controls on the facility. Internal events are things like fires, explosions, equipment failing, operator errors. All types of things that can go wrong," he says.

Smith says given the relatively low amount of radioactivity, it would mainly be the plant workers who could be affected by any release. The NRC expects to make a decision on SHINE's operating license about a year from now.

The NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes building in Beloit, Wis.
Credit Chuck Quirmbach / WUWM

A couple years ago, the NRC issued some guidances in connection with what another company, NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes, does at Beloit, Wis.

Earlier this year, NorthStar Chief Executive Officer Steve Merrick showed WUWM a training model of the company's RadioGenix system, which separates technetium-99m from molybdenum-99.

Merrick says he's proud of how his company produces a vital material for health care patients.

"You know, we're FDA-approved. We've been on the market since 2018. Tens of thousands of patients have had a procedure from using NorthStar technetium,” Merrick says.

NorthStar President and CEO Steve Merrick
Credit Chuck Quirmbach

NorthStar gets moly-99 through a partnership with the University of Missouri's nuclear reactor. But Merrick says an addition being built at the company's Beloit facility will provide a second source.

"In Columbia, Mo., we take [the isotope] moly-98, add a neutron to get moly-99. In Beloit, we're going to use moly-100, use an electron accelerator to knock a neutron out to get moly-99. Now, that moly-99, whether it's from moly-100 or moly-98, is the same thing. It generates the same technetium. So, we're very proud we've got two technology pathways in two locations. So, we can be absolutely the most reliable supplier in the U.S,” Merrick says.

Having a U.S. supply of moly-99 has been a big deal for the federal government for more than a decade.  Especially, since some nuclear reactors in other countries have shut down or plan to do so. 

Menezes, who is the Energy Department’s principal advisor on emerging technologies, is slated to visit NorthStar after touring SHINE.  He's expected to discuss a 2017 Trump administration initiative to revive and expand the U.S. nuclear sector, which includes nuclear medicine. The Energy Department says it backs "bringing new opportunities to the heartland."

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