Cancer diagnostics with radionuclides: Doctors fear bottleneck after reactor failure

Research reactor failed
Doctors are running out of resources for cancer diagnostics

Using radionuclides, doctors perform about 60,000 cancer examinations per week in Germany alone. The radiant elements are produced in only six research reactors in the world. One of them is in Belgium and is out now. Doctors fear supply bottlenecks.

Due to technical problems at a research reactor in Belgium, patients in this country have to be prepared for longer waiting times or postponement of certain medical examinations. German nuclear doctors fear this, according to a statement from their professional association BDN. The reason for this in November is the impending bottleneck in the supply of so-called radionuclides, which are used, among other things, in the diagnosis of many types of cancer.

These substances are therefore only produced in six research reactors worldwide: in the Czech Republic, Poland, Australia, South Africa, the Netherlands and in Mol, Belgium. The reactor in Belgium is now shut down due to technical problems. Unfortunately, the other European nuclear reactors are currently out of service for maintenance work, said BDN chairman Detlef Moka according to the announcement. In November there will probably be no radionuclides for at least a week.

Radionuclides are radioactive elements that are urgently needed for the diagnosis and therapy of nuclear medicine. Simply put, doctors use these substances as diagnostic tools. The radionuclides are introduced into the body in a targeted manner to achieve therapeutic effects or to visualize metabolic processes. An optical representation takes place by means of so-called scintigraphy.

Factories in South Africa and Australia increase production

According to BDN, radionuclides are used, among other things, in the detailed diagnosis of many types of cancer, for example to exclude or detect metastases. The small particles are also of great importance in the examination of organs such as the thyroid, lungs, kidneys, gallbladder or liver and in the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, stroke or thrombosis.

The six research reactors play no role in the energy supply. “But their importance for nuclear medicine and therefore for patient care is great,” says Moka. “Because the reactors are the only source of certain radionuclides.” According to BDN, about 60,000 examinations with the special elements are carried out every week in Germany alone, and worldwide there are more than 30 million annually.

Because of their great importance to nuclear medicine, the six factories worldwide coordinate their production to avoid supply shortages. Now the reactors in Australia and South Africa should work more. However, according to Moka, the problems with the 60-year-old systems in Belgium and the Netherlands have increased recently. His appeal: “In terms of medical care, there would be an urgent need to put another system into operation.”

(This article was first published on Sunday, November 13, 2022.)

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