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Radiopharmaceuticals for Cost Effective Management of Cancer

IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, Aldo Malavasi (left), along with J. A. Osso Junior, Head of the Radioisotope Products and Radiation Technology Section, Division of Physical and Chemical Sciences (NAPC-IAEA), at the third Research Coordination Meeting on the Development of Ga-68 based PET-Radiopharmaceuticals for Management of Cancer and Other Chronic Diseases. (Photo: C. Gravino/IAEA)

The search for swift and precise scientific procedures that can map the human body for exact diagnosis for rapid treatment of diseases like cancer has long been on the global agenda. Among the medical techniques developed is the unique application of nuclear technology in the field of radiopharmaceuticals.

Radiopharmaceuticals are radiotracers, used in small amounts for imaging organ functions and diseases. The radiation a patient receives from them is very low, non-invasive and considered safe. Its emissions can be precisely detected, producing images useful for diagnostic purposes.

Imaging devices such as Computed Tomography (CT), Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and Ultrasonography (US) are capable of charting physiological function and metabolic activity. Radiopharmaceuticals, in comparison, result in more specific and sensitive information about the organ function and metabolism.

Radiopharmaceuticals are commonly used in a well-established scanning device, such as the ones used in the so-called Positron Emission Tomography (PET) technique. The conventional PET radiopharmaceuticals are mainly based on the radioisotope Fluorine-18 (F-18). However, the production of F-18 requires a cyclotron1/ and associated facilities, which are quite expensive and time-consuming to set up. In contrast, another radioisotope Gallium-68 (Ga-68) is readily available in the form of a Germanium/Gallium (Ge-68/Ga-68) generator.

The Ga-68 radioisotope has favorable physical properties and is also significantly cheaper than cyclotron-produced radioisotopes.

The IAEA is among the leading pioneers spearheading the development of state-of-the-art nuclear technology in the use of radiopharmaceuticals. It hosted the third Research Coordination Meeting at its headquarters from 1 to 5 September 2014 as part of an on-going IAEA coordinated research project focusing on the development of Ga-68 radiopharmaceuticals. The meeting involved 17 institutions from across the world that are working to develop the benefits of Ga-68 radiopharmaceuticals.

At this meeting, the results obtained from various countries were analysed and the work plan for the next period of the project was also covered. It was agreed to produce and test ready-to-use "kit" formulations with the Ga-68 radioisotope obtained from a Ge-68/Ga-68 generator.

In his welcome address, IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, Mr Aldo Malavasi, highlighted the importance of Ga-68 radiopharmaceuticals as a diagnostic tool in nuclear medicine. He pointed out the relevance of the work performed by the researchers in this field and also noted the usefulness of Ga-68 radiopharmaceuticals.

In particular, producing kits ready to be labelled with the radioisotope would facilitate its use in the clinics, said Mr. Malavasi and he stressed that the planned use of "kits" with Ga-68 radioisotope would further enhance the usefulness of this nuclear technique in providing better management of cancer and other diseases.

The interest in this particular radioisotope has been due to the steady increase in the number of PET/CT centres.

There are unique types of cancers such as the neuroendocrine cancers that are best diagnosed and monitored by the Ga-68 radiopharmaceutical imaging. For middle and lower income countries, this could be a worthy starting point to set up PET/CT facilities to help with medical imaging of such types of cancer, as well as other infectious diseases. 

1/ A cyclotron is a complex machine that accelerates charged particles in a vacuum outwards from the centre along a spiral path. During the acceleration process, charged particles gain significant energy. The energized charged particles then interact with stable material that is placed in their path. The interaction transforms stable materials into medically useful radioisotopes that are used to make radiopharmaceuticals.

Last update: 8 February 2016