News Release

3D printing can help produce valuable radiopharmaceuticals

Business Announcement

National Centre for Nuclear Research

Irradiation container placed in the MARIA reactor core

image: Irradiation container placed in the MARIA reactor core view more 

Credit: National Centre for Nuclear Research

Without accurate diagnostics, it is difficult to talk about effective treatment of patients, especially in the case of cancer. Today, as much as 80% of diagnostic procedures using radi-opharmaceuticals require the use of molybdenum-99. In the future, the production efficiency of this valuable radioisotope can be increased, among others by thanks to uranium targets prepared by spatial printing. The European patent for such a solution has just landed in the hands of scientists from the National Centre for Nuclear Research (NCBJ) in Świerk, Poland.

“The global demand for molybdenum-99 is huge. It is a radioisotope that is usually produced in research nuclear reactors, i.e. in devices with limited production capacity. That is why it is so important to constantly improve the methods of its production”, says co-inventor of the patent Prof. Paweł Sobkowicz (NCBJ) and emphasizes that the patent application was finan-cially supported by the Foundation for Polish Science and the project itself was carried out by NCBJ's NOMATEN MAB Center of Excellence.

Modern techniques of imaging the structure and functions of the human body largely de-pend on radiopharmaceuticals, i.e. active substances containing appropriately selected radi-oactive isotopes. Once the radiopharmaceutical is introduced into the patient's body, its flow rates or accumulation sites can be monitored by recording the photons emitted by the nuclei of the decaying radioisotope.

Metastable technetium-99m is one of the most important radioisotopes in medicine. The photons it emits do not cause damage to tissue and are registered by the detectors of diag-nostic equipment without much difficulty. In addition, the half-life of this radioisotope is only six hours, which means that it disappears from the patient's body soon after the test.

The short half-life of metastable technetium-99m is an advantage from the point of view of the subject. It is a challenge for diagnosticians because it imposes a radical limitation on the time that may elapse between the production of the radioisotope and the diagnostic proce-dure. The solution to the problem has been known for years: it is not technetium that ends up in hospitals, but molybdenum-99, which is disintegrating into it. The half-life of molyb-denum-99 is 67 hours. This is the time that ensures the possibility of peaceful transport of the radioisotope from the place of production to the hospital.

"Molybdenum-99 is most commonly produced by irradiating small targets containing low-enriched uranium-235 with neutrons", says MSc. Eng. Maciej Lipka, one of the co-authors of the patent. “Reactor neutrons have a limited ability to penetrate the target material. To ensure that as many uranium-235 nuclei as possible are converted to molybdenum-99, the targets are typically prepared as thin plates from a dispersion of uranium or its oxide or silicide in aluminum. The tile production process does not leave much room for optimisation. Therefore, we proposed a different way to prepare uranium targets: spatial printing by laser powder sintering."

Laser sintering of metal powders is a type of 3D printing based on the use of a laser of ap-propriate power to selectively melt a thin layer of powder, previously evenly distributed in-side the container on the working platform. After the first layer is fixed, the platform is low-ered slightly, the next layer of powder is applied and the whole cycle can be repeated as many times as required.

“3D printing techniques have been known for a long time, but so far they have not been used to produce uranium targets for neutron irradiation in reactors. However, we believe that this way of producing targets can have a number of advantages”, says Prof. Sobkowicz.

In a target exposed to neutrons, nuclear reactions take place, the byproduct of which is heat. The use of 3D printing allows you to optimize the shape of the targets so that the heat is more effectively dissipated to the environment. The targets themselves would therefore heat up less, and this would increase the uranium-235 content in them. As a result, more molybdenum-99 could be produced per exposure.

“When firing neutrons in a uranium target, not only molybdenum-99 is formed, but also many other isotopes. After removal from the reactor, each target must therefore be sub-jected to appropriate chemical treatment, which serves to isolate the molybdenum. Mean-while, with the help of spatial printing, it is possible to prepare, for example, openwork tar-gets with a very large active surface area, interacting more effectively with chemical sol-vents," says Eng. Lipka.

Possibly the most promising aspect of the patent relates to the potential to increase the processing efficiency of the uranium-235 itself. In each irradiated target, some of the nuclei of this isotope do not undergo nuclear transformations. The shapes of the printed targets can therefore be designed to increase the amount of uranium recovered. Once extracted, it could be used to build more targets.

Currently, more than 10% of the world's demand for molybdenum-99 is covered by the Polish research nuclear reactor Maria, located in Świerk near Warsaw. NCBJ also operates the POLATOM Radioisotope Center, a producer of technetium generators and many radiopharmaceuticals. POLATOM products are exported to over 70 countries.



Additional information

The NOMATEN Center of Excellencehas been created at the Poland's National Center for Nuclear Research Poland as a new research organization in which international world-class research teams design, develop and assess innovative multifunctional materials - combining advanced structural and functional properties - for industrial and medical applications. NOMATEN develops partnerships with the industry and research organizations in order to perform and deploy go-to-market solutions in the field of innovative materials and radiopharmaceuticals.

MARIA research reactoris currently the sole research nuclear reactor operated in Poland. Its power amounts are 30 MW. Current main reactor applications are: production of radioisotopes, testing of fuel and structural materials for nuclear power engineering, neutron transmutation doping of silicon, neutron modification of materials, research in neutron and condensed matter physics, neutron radiography, neutron activation analysis, neutron beams in medicine, training in the field of reactor physics & technology.

National Center for Nuclear Researchis one of the largest research institutes in Poland with over 1,100 employees. The headquarters of the institute is located in Otwock, in the Świerk district, where the nuclear center belonging to NCBJ, including the MARIA research reactor, is located. The Institute conducts research, development and implementation work in the area related to broadly understood subatomic physics, radiation physics, nuclear and plasma physics and technologies, materials physics, particle acceleration devices and detectors, the use of these devices in medicine and economy as well as research and production of radiopharmaceuticals . The scientific position of the institute is also determined by the number of publications (over 500 per year) and the number of citations measured by the Hirsch index (over 180).

Patent information:

Authors: Paweł Sobkowicz, Maciej Lipka, Rafał Prokopowicz, Anna Talarowska

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