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Canada's Nuclear Future

Q&A with Melody Greaves: CNIC and Canada’s Medical Isotope Leadership

Melody Greaves

Policy, Government, & Stakeholder Relations Specialist,
Canadian Nuclear Isotope Council

Mediaplanet sat down with Melody Greaves, Policy, Government, and Stakeholder Relations Specialist at the Canadian Nuclear Isotope Council (CNIC), to learn about what medical isotopes are, why they’re so important in health care, and how the CNIC helps contribute to Canada’s leadership in the global isotope landscape.

Can you provide an overview of the Canadian Nuclear Isotope Council (CNIC) and its role in advocating for Canada’s position in the global isotope supply?

The CNIC is an independent organization consisting of over 75 members convened to advocate for Canada’s role in the production of the world’s isotope supply. Members are representative of the Canadian health sector, nuclear industry, and research bodies. The CNIC acts as a voice in safeguarding the continued availability of isotopes, and works with government and industry to ensure our public policies are risk-informed and science-based, and to facilitate growth, investment, and innovation in the isotope industry.

What are medical isotopes?  

Medical isotopes are generated by adding a subatomic particle to a stable isotope so that it becomes unstable. They’re used in the practice of medical science. Radioisotopes are matched to different applications depending on their radioactive properties. Isotopes are used in medical imaging procedures, such as positron emission tomography (PET) and single-photon emission computed tomography (SPECT) scans, to diagnose, characterize, and stage diseases. Other isotopes have therapeutic applications and provide treatments for illnesses like cancer through brachytherapy, radioembolic therapy, targeted internal radionuclide therapy (TIRT), and external beam radiation therapy (EBRT) to effectively target disease within the body. Lastly, some emerging isotopes are being used for “theranostic” (THERApeutic + diagNOSTIC) purposes, meaning that they can be used to both diagnose and treat illnesses.

What are some everyday applications of isotopes that positively impact our standard of living?

Isotopes are used in the health sector to sterilize medical devices. Cobalt-60 is used to sterilize about 40 per cent of the world’s single-use medical equipment, including implantable devices, bandages, sutures, syringes, tubing, and personal protective equipment like masks, gloves, and surgical gowns.

Isotopes are used for natural resource development in the oil and gas industry, in oil well logging and hydraulic fracturing, and in mining.

Isotopes also detect leaks or defects in chemical plants and can verify product quality through non-destructive testing. Industrial radiography can be used to evaluate highway and building sites and to keep us safe by verifying the integrity of concrete and asphalt on aging roadways and overpasses.

In agriculture, isotopes detect pesticides and toxic metals in the soil, and can be used to expose insects to high gamma rays, rending them infertile, which helps control insect-borne diseases and reduces the need for pesticides.

Isotopes are also used to prevent food spoilage. Of all food harvested, 25 to 30 per cent is spoiled before it can be consumed. Irradiation can delay the ripening of fruits and vegetables, cereals, and dried foods to give them greater shelf life. Irradiation kills pathogens and decontaminates things like fish and seafood, meat, poultry, and spices.

How crucial is a secure supply of isotopes for various sectors, including health care, industry, and research?

While Canada is home to much of the supply chain for several isotopes, we’re still reliant on the global isotope community for some aspects of production, like processing and target materials. This makes us vulnerable to isotope shortages and international disruptions in supply. Additionally, since isotopes are continually undergoing radioactive decay to become stable, some isotopes have half-lives as short as minutes or a few days. This can pose challenges as many isotopes are made-to-order, necessitating a ready supply at all times.

Simply put, without a secure supply of isotopes, patient lives are at risk. For physicians, isotope shortages mean rescheduling patients in need of life-saving diagnoses or isotope treatments and prioritizing only those in need of urgent procedures. In some cases, hospitals must use alternative, sometimes less effective, tests and treatments. Patients’ lives depend on timely access to a supply of isotopes.

Many other industries rely on timely access to isotopes. Airports, urban infrastructure projects, pipelines, research institutions, and more rely on isotopes. These applications account for over 50 per cent of all the licenses currently issued for the utilization of radioactive materials in Canada. A secure, reliable supply of isotopes facilitates innovation and research across these industries.

How are the CNIC’s efforts contributing to Canada’s leadership in the global isotope landscape?

As the voice of Canada’s isotope industry, the CNIC is responsible for advocating on behalf of the isotope community to government officials at various levels. Through initiatives like our federal Hill Day in Ottawa, our Isotopes for Hope campaign, and our yearly CNIC Leaders’ Summit, we’re actively working with government and industry to address the most significant challenges facing the industry and develop proactive solutions.

Canada has been at the forefront of isotope research, development, and technology for over 70 years. As demand for medical isotopes is expected to reach up to $33 billion USD in the next decade, Canada has an opportunity to maximize the potential of our supply chain on a global scale. The Isotopes for Hope campaign outlines a vision to double Canada’s production of isotopes by 2030, and the CNIC is proud to lead the advocacy necessary to achieve this ambitious goal. To facilitate this growth, we must address the barriers standing in the industry’s way, leverage and protect existing capacity, and encourage investment in new infrastructure. The CNIC works with our broad membership to develop solutions to these barriers and make recommendations to government to ensure future success.

 Learn more by visiting canadianisotopes.ca.

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