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(Chris Young)
(Chris Young)

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The McMaster solution Add to ...

In the early 1950s, an enterprising Canadian chemistry professor who had carried out wartime fission experiments for the National Research Council mounted a campaign to build a nuclear reactor at McMaster University in Hamilton. Harry Thode saw the emerging technology of radio-isotope medicine, and he wanted Canada to get on the bandwagon.

About the same time, a Lethbridge-born physicist named Bertram Brockhouse was conducting experiments in neutron scattering at Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. He and Dr. Thode eventually met up at McMaster (Dr. Brockhouse would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1994), and their pioneering work began attracting promising young scientists to both the school and the country.

In those Cold War days, there was a James Bond level of secrecy around the research being done inside the reactor. Scientists were forbidden to discuss their work, visiting scientists were given pseudonyms and code words were used in referring to uranium compounds, heavy water and other important materials. Fifty years later, the secret-agent tactics have disappeared, but Canadian know-how in nuclear science and isotope production has soared beyond these pioneers' expectations and positioned us as a world leader.

This year, McMaster Nuclear Reactor celebrated its 50th anniversary A new $22-million infusion from the federal and provincial infrastructure program is allowing us to expand the reactor's research and education facilities. This is on top of our commercial activities, including the production of iodine-125, a critical isotope used in the treatment of prostate cancer. Normally, the Hamilton facility supplies half the Canadian production of i-125 (Chalk River is the other half), shipping isotopes around the world each week. Every day, our technicians make roughly 100 isotopes - or, as they like to say, enough for 100 dads a day.

When the isotope crisis hit, McMaster's reactor automatically ramped up production by 20 per cent of I-125, and offered to retrofit its facility to handle the production of molybdenum-99 (or moly-99, as it is more popularly known). This would enable our reactor to produce four times Canada's entire moly-99 requirement.

It's not the first time McMaster has stepped up to the plate. In the 1970s, production of moly-99 was moved to the McMaster reactor while the NRU reactor at Chalk River underwent a vessel replacement.

Granted, Canada is not solely responsible for dealing with the global isotope situation, but the world has come to rely on us as leaders in the field. We have spent decades cultivating this reputation and it has begun to pay dividends, both in spinoff opportunities and in our ability to attract scientists from around the world. We would do well to remember that scientists are an itinerant group, and for their own intellectual survival they will relocate to where innovation is most welcome and alive. Last month, the U.S. Senate gave the green light for the United States to begin domestic production of medical isotopes in response to the global supply shortage. Until now, the United States has relied on purchasing its supply from Canada.

McMaster wants to be a part of the Canadian solution; it's willing and certainly able. Ramping up the McMaster Nuclear Reactor to produce moly-99 would utilize a facility with proven technology. It would require a modest investment and relatively little startup time. It would reassert Canada's position as a leader in nuclear research and nuclear medicine. And it would save lives and bring peace of mind to countless numbers of cancer and heart patients in Canada and around the world.

Mo Elbestawi is vice-president of research and international affairs for McMaster University in Hamilton.

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