OAK RIDGE, Tenn. – The Oak Ridge Office of Environmental Management (OREM) joined partners in a growing collaboration at an event last week to celebrate advances in cancer treatment research that have emerged from an unexpected place — old nuclear material.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and EM Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Jeff Avery joined OREM, its contractor Isotek Systems and private partnering companies for the “No One Fights Alone” event.
“We are proud of our team and this hugely beneficial partnership at Oak Ridge,” Avery said. “This event demonstrates what is possible when we have a shared vision, mutual goals, and the support of the community, Congress, and others."
The nation’s inventory of uranium-233 has been stored at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) for decades. It was originally created in the 1950s and 1960s for potential use in reactors, but it proved to be an unviable fuel source.
OREM and Isotek are tasked with eliminating the uranium-233 inventory stored at ORNL because it presents risks and is costly to keep safe and secure. A private nuclear innovation company, TerraPower, approached Isotek with a plan for the company’s employees to extract rare medical isotopes from this material before it’s prepared for disposal.
That plan is now being carried out, and the medical isotopes are powering treatments called targeted alpha therapy in trials that show promising results.
“Targeted alpha therapy is a form of nuclear medicine designed to deliver very precise medicine just to the cancer cells,” said TerraPower Isotopes Program President Scott Claunch. “This treatment delivers a very potent isotope, just to the cancer cells, and in so doing, it will protect the normal, healthy surrounding tissue.”
Isotek is extracting thorium-229 from the uranium-233 for TerraPower. That company then uses the material to create the actinium-225 needed for targeted alpha therapy. TerraPower recently announced a collaboration agreement with Cardinal Health to produce and distribute actinium-225, which will help extend the reach and impact of this effort.
Through this public-private partnership, up to 100 times more doses of next-generation cancer treatments will be available annually than are currently available worldwide. That translates to half a million doses annually.
"There's tremendous hope for significant cancers,” said Mike Pintek, president of Cardinal Health Nuclear & Precision Health Solutions. “Science is making tremendous progress and it's very exciting to see."
Actinium-225 generated from the OREM project will be used in drug trials involving diseases such as breast, prostate, colon, and neuroendocrine cancers, melanoma, and lymphoma.
“You can give patients a new hope based on actually giving them a chance to extend their lives and improve their quality of lives,” said Dr. Ken Song, president and CEO of RayzeBio, a company offering those trials to patients.
In addition to the hope this project provides the medical community, OREM is celebrating moving forward on its highest priority project at ORNL. The Uranium-233 Disposition Project is eliminating this inventory of Cold War-era nuclear material stored in the world’s oldest operating nuclear facility.
Isotek reinvested funds it received from TerraPower into the project, helping accelerate the project and begin processing uranium-233 sooner. Isotek purchased gloveboxes that allowed workers to begin processing canisters with lower levels of radiation. That approach enabled the extraction and delivery of rare isotopes quicker. This processing campaign received a Secretary of Energy Achievement Award in 2021 for its innovation and cost savings.
Processing operations began on the high-dose uranium-233 last fall. This phase of the effort is processing larger quantities of nuclear material and providing larger amounts of medical isotopes to the medical industry.
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