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CERN to produce radioisotopes for health

Construction began today on the CERN MEDICIS research facility, which will make radioactive isotopes for medical applications


A groundbreaking ceremony at CERN today marked the beginning of the construction of CERN MEDICIS, a research facility that will make radioisotopes for medical applications. The facility will use a proton beam at ISOLDE to produce the isotopes, which are first destined for hospitals and research centres in Switzerland, and will progressively extend to a larger network of laboratories in Europe and beyond.

Radioactive isotopes are unstable nuclei. They present the same number of protons and a different number of neutrons when compared to the equivalent stable chemical element. In medicine they can be used to reveal the locations of specific molecules in living tissue.

To produce radioisotopes CERN MEDICIS will use the primary proton beam at ISOLDE, the radioactive beam facility that for over 40 years has provided beams for around 300 experiments at CERN. 

At ISOLDE, physicists direct a high-energy-proton beam from the Proton-Synchrotron Booster at a target. The beam loses only 10% of its intensity and energy on hitting the target so the particles that pass through can still be used. For CERN-MEDICIS, a second target will be placed behind the first, and used to produce useful radioisotopes.

A proton beam, entering from the left, hits a target at the ISOLDE facility, producing a shower of scattered particles (Image: ISOLDE)

An automated conveyor will then carry this second target to the CERN MEDICIS infrastructure, where the radioisotopes will be extracted. CERN's Knowledge Transfer group covered the cost of the conveyor using money from the KT Fund, and is providing a dedicated technology-transfer officer specializing in life sciences. The radioactive shipping service in CERN's Radio Protection unit together with the logistic services will handle transporting the radioisotopes to the medical facilities where they are needed.

“The first part of activities will be fully dedicated to the production and shipping of radioisotopes to the clinical and research centres in the region,” says Thierry Stora, the CERN engineer who leads the CERN MEDICIS project. So far the Geneva University Hospital (HUG), the Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) and the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research (ISREC) of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) will use CERN’s isotopes. But there is room for expansion.

“More research and treatment facilities in the member states have already expressed their interest in collaborating with CERN,” says Stora. “Researchers from the biomedical field are keen to share the diverse technical expertise we have at CERN, which is required to produce radioisotopes.”

The project is financed by CERN and counts on financial and in-kind donations from private foundations and from KU Leuven University in Belgium. Civil works will be completed by the end of 2013. The scientific installations are planned to be completed in 2015 and will include a radiochemical laboratory.