Karin Stephenson, PhD
Director, Research Platforms at McMaster University
Karin Stephenson shares what sparked her interest in nuclear medicine research, why it’s so important to her, and what Canadians need to know about the evolving industry.
What prompted you to pursue a career in nuclear medicine research?
I knew from a very early age that my career would involve helping people, thinking I may become a medical doctor. My passion for science was equally strong and charted my path for university, and by my fourth-year thesis project, a spark was lit for research in nuclear medicine and medical isotopes. From there, things really took off — a graduate degree in chemistry and radiopharmaceutical sciences, followed by two post-doctoral fellowships, the first in the radiology department at the University of Pennsylvania and the second at the PET Centre at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. Some 20 years later, I’m still incredibly excited about the potential of this research and so proud that it’s now in the clinic treating different cancers. And now, I have the opportunity to support and grow the field in a different way in my role as Chief Scientific Officer for the Canadian Nuclear Isotope Council (CNIC).
How have you seen the nuclear medicine industry evolve over the years?
Nuclear medicine and the use of medical isotopes is in a period of tremendous growth. Initially used primarily for diagnosing and staging of disease, the last 10 years have seen expanded use of therapeutic medical isotopes to prepare radiotherapies for various cancers, changing the landscape and the market. By 2030, therapeutic radiopharmaceuticals will claim the largest stake in the estimated US$30 billion nuclear medicine market. Medical isotopes like Actinium-225 and Lutetium-177 are driving this change, providing new treatment options for both unmet needs and the potential for new frontline therapies.
What would you like Canadians to know about nuclear medicine?
I know first-hand that nuclear medicine changes lives and impacts families every day for Canadians and around the world. Nuclear medicine became very personal for me when my mom was diagnosed with Stage 2 melanoma and had a PET scan wherein they discovered she also had breast cancer — a scan I believe saved her life.
As Canadians, it’s important to know that we’re playing a critical role in the global supply of medical isotopes. Medical isotopes are the key ingredient in the drugs used to diagnose and treat diseases in nuclear medicine departments around the world. Currently, we’re the largest supplier of two of the most widely used medical isotopes, and we play critical roles in the supply chain of a number of others. Further, we’re experts and world leaders in this field, with some of the most promising technology coming from Canadian research and development.
How is Canada uniquely positioned to play a key role in the global medical isotope industry?
Canada has the nuclear capital — both talent and infrastructure — that allows us to punch well above our weight. Consider the groundbreaking isotope production systems (IPS) developed for our CANDU power reactors that leverage Canadian technology to produce medical isotopes at a massive scale — Bruce Power’s production of Lutetium-177 and OPG’s collaboration with LEP and BWXT to produce the most widely used diagnostic medical isotope precursor Mo-99 are game-changing. And world-leading research facilities — like McMaster University’s research reactor and TRIUMF’s accelerator — are advancing the research and discovery of new medical isotopes. Accelerators often produce different isotopes from reactors, and the global medical isotope supply is going to need all of them.
Stability in supply is critical to ensuring patients do not go untreated or have the best treatment option. Combined, the Canadian medical isotope ecosystem is uniquely positioned to provide incredible stability to the global medical isotope supply and markets.