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Idaho State University Idaho Accelerator Center teams with International Isotopes to produce rare cancer-fighting isotope

June 28, 2012
ISU Marketing and Communications

At the Idaho State University Idaho Accelerator Center (IAC) researchers are, metaphorically speaking, turning lead into gold, in this case using the element zinc to produce a medical isotope of copper that will be a two-edged weapon for fighting cancer. It can be used both for therapy and diagnosis.

The medical isotope Copper-67 produced at the IAC has the potential to treat people now suffering from a variety of cancers including non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma as well as bladder, colorectal and ovarian cancers, said Jon Stoner, Idaho Accelerator Research Consultant.

Douglas Wells, director of the Idahos State University  Idaho Accelerator Center talks about the custom-built IAC accelerator that will be used to create medical isotopes. (ISU Photographic Services)

Making Copper-67 takes many steps, but the conversion of Zinc into Copper first uses a high-powered electron linear accelerator. An electron accelerator speeds up electrons, an elementary particle, to nearly the velocity of light.  IAC personnel built such an accelerator worth $3 million for $300,000. They did this by building a one of a kind accelerator, comprised of a variety of parts from several older accelerators and custom parts manufactured at the IAC. This combination produced a much more powerful accelerator, said Frank Harmon, senior scientist and former director of the IAC.

The researchers put the element Zinc and a "converter" in the sights of the new accelerator.  The accelerator, in turn, shoots electrons into the converter, a material that creates another high-energy particle – a photon. That photon travels into the Zinc atoms and knocks out a proton, producing Copper-67.

"Idaho State University is putting together the technology and the intellectual property on how to make this medical isotope," Stoner said. "This is novel technology and we hope to make reliable quantities of this rare isotope for cancer researchers to create cancer-fighting drugs."

The Idaho Accelerator Center will team with International Isotopes, Inc., an Idaho Falls-based company, to produce Copper-67, which has not been consistently available in the United States. The International Isotopes facility is specifically licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for this type of activity. Its facility is also registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a manufacturing facility for drug products – a classification that will help facilitate the commercial development of the Copper-67 product.

The market is bright for Copper-67, which fights cancers and shows doctors where the cancer is located in a patient. Copper-67 is able to do these two beneficial actions simultaneously when it is bonded with monoclonal antibodies, which basically are proteins that are created to attach to the cell walls of cancer cells.

When injected, the antibodies and Copper-67 together travel down the bloodstream, find cancers cells and attach to them. The Copper-67 then decays, killing the cancer cell, and sends out a gamma ray that can be seen with cameras common to hospitals. This shows doctors where the tumors are located. Initial research has been very promising and new drugs made from Copper-67 may be significantly more effective than chemotherapy or external radiation.   

The ISU Idaho Accelerator Center hopes to create enough pure Copper-67 by mid-summer to provide it to International Isotopes for initial testing.

Under the terms of an agreement between ISU and International Isotopes, ISU will then continue to produce the raw isotope at the IAC and International Isotopes will transfer the material to its facility where it will be processed and packaged in its final form.

In addition to its work at the accelerator center, ISU is providing the expertise for chemical processing. International Isotopes will make an in-kind contribution of equipment for the isotope processing, technical support for packaging and shipping, and supporting safety staff.

The success of this project will be a major step forward for ISU and the region in the high-tech world of nuclear technology related to medicine. The medical isotopes project received a boost from the Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission (IGEM), which awarded $670,000 to the Idaho Accelerator Center earlier this summer. Funds from the IGEM grant are being used on the medical isotopes project.



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