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Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne conducts vital research essential for accelerator-based medicine

From a history-making quartet of lightbulbs powered by nuclear energy to discoveries enabled by the one of brightest light sources in the Western Hemisphere to insights into the dark corners of the universe, 75 years of Argonne research have produced breakthroughs that have changed our society and made our lives safer, healthier and more prosperous. This article is part of a 75th anniversary series describing Argonne’s history of discovery, current science program and future research thrusts.

Radioisotopes are used in medicine, most typically to detect and treat diseases such as cancer in a more targeted fashion than traditional chemotherapy. U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory scientists are using particle accelerators and radiological facilities to study and produce radioisotopes for research and medical use.

New radiopharmaceuticals” are needed to advance personalized medicine, in which treatments can be tailored to a patient’s individual response.

Argonne is making vital radioisotope discoveries — and contributions to advanced radioisotope production and purification technologies for disease diagnosis and therapy — by leveraging two facilities that are unmatched within the DOE Isotope Program. These are the Low Energy Accelerator Facility (LEAF), which provides photonuclear reaction capabilities, and the Argonne Tandem Linac Accelerator System, which provides low-energy ion beams that enable novel isotope research. The DOE Isotope Program is the global leader in producing and distributing radioactive and enriched stable isotopes that are deemed critical or in short supply.

Copper-67 (Cu-67) is the first radioisotope that Argonne has transitioned from research to production using the electron accelerator at LEAF. Cu-67 is called a theragnostic” because it can be used both to visualize cancerous tumors and treat the disease, which could mean fewer injections, fewer hospital visits and reduced costs. The laboratory’s longer-term goal is to develop novel production technologies for other isotopes to meet expected increases in demand as cancer-fighting isotopes advance beyond clinical trials.   

In addition, a group of award-winning Argonne scientists assisted U.S. industry in the development of alternative production methods of the important medical isotope molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), which radiologists use to detect heart disease, bone decay and some types of hard-to-find cancers.