Two nuclear reactors that provide most of the world’s supply of a radioactive drug crucial to tests for cardiac disease, cancers and kidney function in children have shut down for repairs, resulting in an acute global shortage, including in faraway India.
One reactor, 51 years old, which produced the drug – the isotope technetium-99m -- is located in Ontario, Canada. It shut on May 14 and will stay shut till the end of the year. The other was a 47-year-old Dutch reactor which too shut for a month last Saturday.
Tech-99m, as the drug is called in abbreviated form, emits a gamma ray that makes it easy to detect during tests. It has a half-life of six hours, meaning that it loses half its strength in that period, which makes stockpiling impossible. It has to be produced and used faster than most other medicines.
The drug is extensively used in hospitals in India. One big user is the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi, which is facing an acute shortage for the past few months.
“We use tones and tonnes of the drug in the department of nuclear medicine for diseases as varied as heart disease and cancers,” said Dr A.K. Malhotra, head of the department of nuclear medicine at AIIMS. “With Netherlands and Canada both shutting down their reactors, we are forced to buy the drug at 200 times the original price from other countries like Israel, Poland and Turkey.”
He said India had the capability to produce the drug, but how soon it could be done was difficult to say. “We need more reactors in the country to meet the extensive demand. Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Trombay, Mumbai, is trying to do its best, but we aren’t sure how much will they be able to,” said Malhotra.
There are substitute techniques and other materials for some of the procedures that use the isotope, but they are generally less effective, more dangerous or more expensive. With the loss of diagnostic capability, some people will be operated on that don’t need to be, and vice versa.
(with inputs from NYT )