Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, have achieved a breakthrough in the production of scandium radioisotopes, a development with profound implications for the future of medical imaging and cancer treatment. Scandium radioisotopes hold immense potential for applications such as PET scans and theranostics, a technique combining diagnostics and therapy for diseases like cancer.

Conventionally, the use of scandium radioisotopes for medical imaging and therapy has been hindered by challenges in producing enough of these isotopes with the required purity for human use. The University of Wisconsin researchers have successfully addressed these limitations by involving the irradiation of specially designed accelerator targets.

The team’s approach involves five nuclear reactions that create scandium-43 and scandium-44 through proton and deuteron irradiation of calcium oxide accelerator targets. By utilizing commercially available targets enriched with specific calcium isotopes, including calcium-42, calcium-43, and calcium-44, the researchers achieved notable results.

Among the findings, scandium-44 exhibited the highest yields and purities when irradiating calcium-44 with protons, yielding 120 millicuries within an hour of irradiation at more than 99.7% purity. Moreover, the researchers have developed processes for chemical purification of scandium and recovery of the costly calcium target materials, rendering the production process sustainable in a modern hospital environment.

These newly produced scandium radioisotopes, including scandium-43 and scandium-44, offer advanced purity, making them suitable as radioactive drugs to target cancer. In fact, their performance in modern diagnostic medical procedures utilizing PET scanners surpasses the current clinical standard of care radiometal isotope gallium-68 in terms of resolution and quantitative accuracy.

The Department of Energy Isotope Program, overseen by the DOE Office of Science for Isotope R&D and Production, backs this research to make scandium radioisotopes regularly accessible soon.