Researchers from the University of Alberta say they can produce enough medical isotopes to ensure that no one in the province ever needs to wait for a diagnostic scan. And they can do it all without the risks of a nuclear reactor.

Medical isotopes are radioactive substances that are used as tracers during medical scans to diagnose health conditions. They help to spot cancer, for example, by “lighting up” areas in the body with high glucose metabolism – a sure sign of cancer cells.

One of the most important isotopes is called technetium-99m and it’s currently used in about 70 per cent of all nuclear medical imaging tests.

But Canada has long struggled with shortages of the isotope because there are only a handful of nuclear reactors that can supply them, and those reactors are aging and often need to be taken down for maintenance.

For years, the reactor at Chalk River, Ont., was the only facility in Canada – and one of only five in the world – that produced molybdenum-99, which is turned into technetium-99m.

But the federal government shut down that aging site for good in March. That has forced Canada to buy its technetium from foreign sources, says Sandy McEwan, a professor of oncology at the University of Alberta.

“We've been getting isotopes from reactors in Europe and South Africa,” he told CTV Edmonton Monday.

But now the U of A team says they think they have the potential to produce enough isotopes to supply the entire province using a device at the university’s Medical Isotope and Cyclotron Facility.

The device is a particle accelerator known as a cyclotron, which can produce technetium-99m without any radioactive waste because there’s no nuclear reactor involved.

“Unlike other non-reactor-based methods of producing technetium-99m, the product from the cyclotron is functionally identical to that produced from a reactor. No new equipment or expertise is necessary at the nuclear medicine department,” Jan Andersson, a researcher at the U of A’s Medical Isotope and Cyclotron Facility, said in a statement.

The team believes they can produce a steady supply of technetium to perform 1,000 diagnostic tests a day -- enough for the entire province. With that kind of capability, the team says Albertans would never need to wait for tests that are delayed by isotope shortages.

What’s more, the cyclotron can adapt as technology changes. McEwan says that imaging technology, such as PET (positron emission tomography) scans, is reducing the need for technetium. In fact, he predicts in the next 10 years, technetium imaging will begin to disappear.

The cyclotron will still be able to produce technetium as well as the isotopes used in PET imaging, adapting as the technology changes, he says.

The team recently published a research paper highlighting the cyclotron’s capabilities.

Now, it’s up to the federal and Alberta governments to decide how they want to use technology. The first step is getting Health Canada's approval to market the cyclotron -- a process that could take two years.

With a report from CTV Edmonton’s Shanelle Kaul