TFW the Radioactive Garbage from your Lab Turns Out to Be a Potential Cancer Treatment

Sometimes your particle accelerator does more than you bargained for.

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Feb 17 2017, 7:47pm

There's an old adage that one person's trash is another person's treasure. Take the case of a Canadian physics lab that realized the radioactive waste it had been stockpiling was actually a rare, expensive, potentially cancer-destroying medical isotope.

"It was literally putting two and two together," said Paul Schaffer, an associate lab director at TRIUMF, a particle physics research facility in Vancouver. 

Though TRIUMF largely focuses on using its particle accelerator to research nuclear physics, it also has a life sciences division, where Schaffer works. This allowed him to make the connection that the work the lab's physicists were doing had a valuable byproduct: a rare medical isotope, called actinium.

"The physicists wanted to understand what happens when, for example, you throw protons against a target and you get a soup of weird stuff," Schaffer told me at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston. "There was literally a contaminant that was in the waste train and they didn't know what to do with it, so they were hanging on to it in order to allow it to decay away."

That contaminant was actinium, which usually requires a lengthy, intensive process to extract from radioactive waste—researchers in the US have made small quantities out of the leftover uranium from the Manhattan Project, Schaffer said. But the particle accelerator was producing it incidentally, without any uranium, and in much higher quantities than ever before.

Because it's so expensive and difficult to produce, researchers haven't been able to spend a lot of time investigating its possible medical applications. But the handful of research that has been done shows it's worth taking a closer look at. One study, published in December in the Journal of Nuclear Medicine, studied two late-stage cancer patients whose tumors had spread throughout their bodies. Over the course of several treatments with actinium injected into the patient, the tumors were obliterated:

Here's one of the patients from the study before (left, Dec 2014) and after therapy (right, Sep 2015). Image: Journal of Nuclear Medicine

It was a really small trial, so there's a lot more research to be done to figure out if this treatment is safe and effective, but the results were promising. TRIUMF is now working on using its existing infrastructure to produce more and more actinium so this potential treatment can be properly investigated.

"Maybe in 10 years, we have enough of this actinium and 1,000 hospitals have done their clinical trials and decide, you know what, we can't do this. It's not good,"  Schaffer said. "There could be other isotopes we can look at, so that's the idea. Just keep walking it forward."