Medical radioisotopes

The use of medical radioisotopes is an important part of modern medical practices. Each year, over 40 million people around the world benefit from nuclear medicine testing. Medical radioisotopes are used in non-invasive nuclear diagnostic imaging techniques to help identify common illnesses such as heart disease and cancer at an early stage. They are used to track disease progression and provide predictive information about the likely success of alternative therapy. This information helps health care professionals to accurately manage diseases and to make informed medical decisions on treatment options such as surgical intervention.

Supply shortages

Disruptions in the radioisotope supply chain can interrupt the availability of medical testing for millions of patients around world. Over the last few years there have been a number of supply shortages of the most widely used medical radioisotope, molybdenum-99 (99Mo), and its decay product, technetium-99m (99mTc). With a half-life of 66 hours for 99Mo and 6 hours for 99mTc, these isotopes must be produced continually and used efficiently in order to meet demand. Until recently, five multipurpose research reactors, all over 45 years old, have been producing over 95 percent of the world’s supply of 99Mo. These aging facilities face challenges in maintaining a consistent supply to the health community and will likely be retired from service within the next 15 years.

Securing the supply

At the request of its member countries, the NEA became involved in global efforts to ensure a reliable supply of 99Mo and 99mTc. The NEA established the High-level Group on the Security of Supply of Medical Radioisotopes (HLG-MR) in 2009. The HLG-MR is comprised of approximately 40 experts representing the governments of Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Japan, Republic of Korea, the Netherlands, Poland, the Russian Federation, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States, as well as from the European Commission, the Euratom Supply Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Members of the HLG-MR were nominated by governments and included experts from government agencies responsible for medical or nuclear policy, as well as from research and industrial organisations with interests in medical radioisotopes.

Last reviewed: 20 February 2013