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.”