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IAEA International Symposium on Trends in Radiopharmaceuticals Begins

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A researcher at Indonesia’s National Nuclear Agency (BATAN) is using a hot cell to prepare a radiopharmaceutical. (Photo: M. Gaspar/IAEA)

Destroying cancer cells while sparing surrounding healthy areas, diagnosing brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, examining the heart for damaged tissue: these are some of the many applications of radiopharmaceuticals, which are at the focus of an IAEA International Symposium in Vienna this week.

At the symposium, the first in 15 years, a diverse group of professionals are discussing cutting-edge advancements in radiopharmaceuticals — pharmaceutical drugs with small amounts of radioactive isotopes — including their potential to provide better diagnostic techniques and more efficient therapies for various common diseases such as cancer.

“People are sometimes surprised to learn that the IAEA works to help cancer patients throughout the world, especially in developing countries,” said IAEA Acting Director General Cornel Feruta in his opening remarks. “In fact, human health is a priority area for our 171 Member States and cancer control is a particular focus of our work. We help countries to make optimal use of nuclear medicine and radiotherapy, which are dependent on the availability of medical radioisotopes and radiopharmaceuticals.”

Over 450 participants from 94 countries are attending the symposium, a testament to the increasing importance of radiopharmaceuticals in health care, said Najat Mokhtar, Deputy Director General and Head of the IAEA Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications.

As the global cancer burden continues to rise, along with instances of other common diseases, it is crucial that medical professionals have the tools to properly understand, diagnose and effectively treat these diseases. Radiopharmaceuticals are designed to help with these tasks.

Currently used in more than 80% of all medical scans to diagnose and treat non-communicable diseases, they are becoming even more prevalent, said Mokhtar. “The number of medical procedures involving the use of radioisotopes is growing worldwide, with a clear emphasis on radionuclide therapy using radiopharmaceuticals for cancer treatment.”

Innovation through collaboration

Throughout the week, chemists, biologists, physicists, medical researchers and policymakers will have the opportunity to address common problems in the field and work towards expanding the worldwide use of radiopharmaceuticals for disease diagnosis and treatment.

This sort of cross-disciplinary collaboration is key to the development of various new radioisotopes, said Suzanne Lapi, keynote speaker at the symposium and the Director of the Cyclotron Facility and Radiochemistry Laboratory and of the Division of Advanced Medical Imaging Research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in the United States.

Lapi shared details on the development of certain innovative radioisotopes at her lab with symposium participants. One example is a new isotope for titanium with a longer half-life — meaning it stays usable for longer — which will allow her team to deliver it to a broader area around Birmingham.

“We’re excited to be expanding the toolbox of radioisotopes, developing many different ones with a wide variety of half-lives, imaging characteristics and chemistries. Doing so is about more than just disease detection — it can also help predict how an individual will respond to a certain course of treatment,” she said.

Additional topics to be covered throughout the course of the week are theranostic radioisotopes, which combine diagnosis and therapy properties, and regulatory and licensing issues related to radiopharmaceutical production, amongst others.

IAEA Support

Through its technical cooperation programme, the IAEA supports countries to achieve self-sufficiency in the production of radioisotopes and radiopharmaceuticals, to strengthen quality assurance practices and regulatory compliance, and to help develop the specialist skills to improve services. The technical cooperation programme is investing around €9 million in 30 projects around the world to increase the availability of the products and facilities needed to produce radioisotopes for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes.

A special session during the symposium will showcase examples from countries, such as Argentina, Cuba and Kazakhstan, that have increased their capacities with the support of the IAEA.

The IAEA also provides countries with practical guidance on topics related to radiopharmaceuticals and overviews of current trends in the field through technical documents and the IAEA Radioisotopes and Radiopharmaceuticals Series.  

The IAEA awarded grants to 113 participants from various countries to attend the symposium. A livestream of the symposium is available here.

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