Rock County is shaping up to become a global hearth for nuclear medicine, and the time when that will occur is fast approaching.
In separate developments, Beloit nuclear medicine producer NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes and its competitor, Janesville-based SHINE Medical Technologies, both announced they plan to go live with nuclear radioisotope production in Rock County around the end of 2022.
NorthStar on Tuesday unboxed two new nuclear particle accelerators that were shipped 5,700 miles from a producer in Belgium.
Those twin accelerators—24-ton electron beam accelerators that NorthStar CEO and President Stephen Merrick said cost $5 million apiece—are part of a program NorthStar is calling “Project Gemini.”
They’ll be the engines in NorthStar’s plans to produce as much as 20% of the U.S. domestic market for medical molybdenum-99, and they’ll be used to make other pharmaceutical nuclear isotopes used for cancer treatment.
The accelerators, more than two years in the works, will be installed in a secured, radiation-sealed production facility in which NorthStar has invested $80 million to build off Gateway Boulevard in Beloit.
Pending regulatory approval that officials said could come in late 2022, the new equipment will broaden NorthStar’s production of the bone- and tissue-illuminating medical testing drug moly-99 to two facilities: Beloit and Missouri.
For the last two years, NorthStar has been commercially producing medical moly-99 using a government-owned nuclear reactor in Columbia, Missouri.
NorthStar is one of the only domestic producers of moly-99 in the U.S., and its supply to the U.S. medical market has addressed a critical shortage in radioisotopes over the last decade as the handful of government nuclear reactors used for radioisotope production continues to age.
NorthStar’s production capability in Beloit and Missouri will provide more reliable, seamless capacity for the supply of moly-99 and other isotopes, Merrick said.
Meanwhile, SHINE Medical Technologies is running and gunning on its own medical radioisotope production projects.
After more than a decade of planning, development and federal nuclear regulatory vetting, the Janesville company is now deep into the buildout of its landmark development: a 45,000-square-foot moly-99 production plant off Highway 51 on Janesville’s south side.
The facility is set to ramp up commercial production of moly-99 by late 2022, using eight of SHINE’s own particle accelerators at a scale that CEO Greg Piefer said could provide the lion’s share of the global supply of moly-99.
In tandem, SHINE is building its new corporate headquarters and a therapeutic isotope production facility on the same campus in Janesville.
This month, Piefer said SHINE is using one of its particle accelerators to begin commercial production of Lutetium-177, one of a field of cancer-treatment drugs the company aims to produce with moly-99.
On Tuesday, as a huge crane pulled a wooden box the size of a one-car garage off one of NorthStar’s new particle accelerators, Chief Science Officer Jim Harvey waved a university white paper from research he had written in 2008.
Harvey said the research, now 13 years old, proved that not only is it possible for nuclear medicine to be produced using particle accelerators, but that the technology could operate on a commercial scale.
“We’ve gone a long way since then,” Harvey said, motioning toward the two large accelerators that loomed behind him like giant, space-age carnival rides.
On Tuesday, SHINE announced that it has reunited via a merger with Fitchburg-based nuclear fusion technology firm Phoenix LLC, a company Piefer founded in 2005.
Piefer said the reuniting of the two companies that split off years ago will allow SHINE and Phoenix to coordinate and develop long-term projects, including clean fusion energy production and the recycling of nuclear waste generated at nuclear power plants.
He called those future prospects “alchemy” and said the potential of clean nuclear energy through fusion technology could change the course of humanity as much as the prehistoric discovery of fire.
Pointing to the more immediate, overarching picture—Rock County as an emerging center for nuclear medicine—Piefer on Tuesday tipped his cap to his competitor, NorthStar.
He said the arrival of NorthStar’s nuclear accelerators Tuesday, and NorthStar’s own future in producing radioisotope medicines, will help galvanize Rock County as a center for health care-based nuclear technology.
As the world emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, Piefer said millions of people have deferred health care amid a strain on health care systems globally. There’s a possibility of a new epidemic of untreated chronic diseases.
In the months to come, Piefer said, Rock County will become a vital link in the delivery of nuclear medicines, regardless of whether they’re produced at SHINE or NorthStar.
“It will be the global hub,” he said. “This is it. This is going to be the new center, and it’s exciting.”
They’re cute, furry and perhaps the second-most industrious mammals on the planet. And they live among us.
Beavers have been busy gnawing down trees along the shores of the Rock River and its tributaries in Janesville in recent years.
Spectators who love to watch the eagles and pelicans at the end of River Street might have noticed the conical pile of sticks that is most likely a beaver lodge, located near the swampy area where Spring Brook enters the river.
“Over the winter, we started to notice their activity along the bike trail. It seems like every few years they come around, then move on for a while,” said city Parks Director Cullen Slapak.
“We’re not concerned at this point. We’ve been monitoring and cutting trees they’re working on, if they are leaning towards the bike trail,” Slapak said. “They haven’t caused any flooding that we’re aware of at this point, so as long as they’re in the river, we plan to leave them be.”
One beaver-downed tree fell onto an outfield fence at Dawson Ball Fields, probably sometime since last fall.
The home-run tree is one of many that beavers have felled along the nearby backwater/drainage ditch on the south side of the ballpark, not far from the aforementioned lodge.
The Gazette contacted wildlife biologist Josh Kapfer of UW-Whitewater for more on the second-biggest rodent on the planet:
Q: Why do beavers build dams?
Kapfer: One reported reason is that they are creating a deeper water body that’s less likely to freeze solid in the winter and allow them to go about their activities. … The deeper water provides them a better refuge from threats.
They are able to locate damage to their dam by the sound of running water; they are compelled to stop that sound and stop the water movement.
Q: What do you think of beavers?
Kapfer: They are amazingly interesting. They are one of the few if not the only type of animal that can massively and intentionally reconfigure the landscape around them. I’ve heard folks use the term “ecological engineer” to describe them.
(By building dams), they can take a lotic (moving) water body and turn it into a lentic (still) water body. … When water becomes stagnant, nutrients like carbon and nitrogen are deposited in aquatic sediments, rather than being pushed downstream. These changes can eventually lead to a complete change in the other living organisms found in a beaver’s surroundings.
The aquatic plants change from those that like moving water to those that like standing water and can use the nutrients in the sediments. Further, the removal of trees along the shore can allow better sunlight penetration for photosynthesis. The assemblages of animals then also change. Standing water is more attractive to amphibians. It’s more attractive to certain species of invertebrates (and) birds. So entire biological communities can be changed as the result of beaver activity. It’s quite astounding!
Q: The city parks people say beavers seem to appear every few years and then disappear. Is this typical?
Kapfer: Beavers have a tendency to abandon locations. Most research I’ve seen on this topic seems to support that fluctuations in water level are a major driver behind beavers leaving an area.
Habitat quality probably also plays a role. Yet, given water levels along rivers can fluctuate frequently, it would make sense that beavers “come and go” from various locations along the Rock River over time.
Q: Is it rare to see a beaver?
Kapfer: They are primarily nocturnal and sometimes active at dawn and dusk. Many of the beaver interactions I’ve had are because I’ve walked near a water body they inhabit at night, only to hear them slap their tail on the water—a sort of warning/threat behavior—which can be a bit startling if you aren’t expecting it! In those instances, I didn’t even know they were nearby because it was dark out.
Q: Beavers can cause flooding by damming waterways, but other than that, is their presence rather benign?
Kapfer: If they weren’t creating dams, folks would probably pay them little heed. However, they are always creating dams. It’s basically what they do.
Another potential problem is that they could obviously take down trees along the river that folks find desirable. It’s useful to remember, however, that most evidence supports beavers show preferences for certain types of trees—poplar and cottonwood. They also use alder, birch, fruit trees and willows. Yet, if their preferred trees are in short supply, they’ll apparently go after oaks and pines, etc.
It’s easy to observe that they also tend to go after smaller diameter trees first, if they are available, although they’ll surely tackle the bigger ones if small ones are gone. This also depends on how long they actually remain in the area. But there’s no denying that they can remove a lot of trees from an area.
Q: Any rules for what to do when encountering a beaver? Will they bite?
Kapfer: Any animal can pose some level of danger if threatened, trapped or cornered, and beavers have serious incisors for chewing wood. However, beavers are largely nonaggressive if left alone.
They have the advantage typically of being able to simply plunge into the water upon one’s approach, so the likelihood of a direct and dangerous encounter is low.
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