A team at the Canada’s particle accelerator facility at the University of British Columbia is celebrating a major triumph, inking a deal to produce a rare cancer drug that previously relied on nuclear waste.
The TRIUMF project has formed a partnership with Ontario-based Fusion Pharmaceuticals to upgrade its facility to produce actinium-225, nicknamed “the rarest drug on Earth.”
That rare radioisotope started making headlines about five years ago when four treatments of it were administered to a German man who was just weeks from death, and suffering from multiple cancerous tumours.
Eight months later, the tumours had disappeared.
“We’re seeing cancer basically be eliminated in some cases, so those are very early results but very exciting ones,” TRIUMF Innovations CEO Kathryn Hayashi told Global News, of the isotope’s potential.
But actinium-225 is very rare. Until now, the global supply of the material has come from U.S. radioactive waste.
In 2015, Paul Schaffer, one of TRIUMF’s associate lab directors, realized the institution was producing significant amounts of actinium-225 through the regular use of its high-energy cyclotron facility for research.
“The cyclotron speeds up protons to three-quarters of the speed of light using electromagnets. So it basically shoots it down a beam line and hits a beamline,” explained Hayashi.
“It basically blasts it apart and creates hundreds of different isotopes, and one of them is actinium-225.”
Hayashi says the facility theoretically has the capacity to scale up to produce thousands of doses of the drug.
That’s particularly exciting, because actinium has in early research been shown to be effective at killing cancer cells, while leaving healthy parts of the human body unaffected.
“It’s very hard to develop resistance with actinium,” explained Dr. François Bénard, vice president of research at BC Cancer.
“So we anticipate that this will be an effective third fourth line treatment, in addition to the other treatments available.”
The first step for TRIUMF will be to develop a supply chain.
Step two will involve rolling out clinical trials in British Columbia, potentially within the next 18 months.
“It’s sort of like sending a man to the moon or a woman to the moon,” said Bénard.
“You know how to get there, you just need to develop resources.”