When you think of life-saving elements used in medicine, you probably don’t immediately think of molybdenum-99. Molybdenum-99 is a radioactive isotope (also known as a radioisotope), making it extremely valuable and useful in medical imaging.
Radioisotopes circulate through the body’s systems easily and leave trace amounts of radiation in their wake, allowing doctors to examine blood flow to specific organs and assess organ function or bone growth. They are incredibly beneficial in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer:
“In radiation therapy for cancer, the patient’s tumor is bombarded with ionizing radiation, typically in the form of beams of subatomic particles, such as protons, neutrons, or alpha or beta particles, which directly disrupt the atomic or molecular structure of the targeted tissue. Ionizing radiation introduces breaks in the double-stranded DNA molecule, causing the cancer cells to die and thereby preventing their replication.”
The half-lives of radioactive isotopes are notoriously short-lived, making their production and speedy delivery essential to their efficacy. A report posted in 2016 stated that the source of the world’s supply of molybdenum-99 came from irradiating targets in seven research reactors located in Australia, Canada, Europe, and South Africa — this meant that all of our country’s supply needed to be shipped from far abroad, which seriously threatened its usefulness upon arrival. The U.S. hadn’t produced the radioisotope domestically since the 1980s, so our country was facing a potential shortage of the vital element.
Fortunately, it didn’t come to that. NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes, LLC, recently received an Award for Outstanding Achievement from the U.S. Department of Energy for their work producing the radioisotope on U.S. soil for the first time in three decades.
“NorthStar’s efforts have resulted in a safer world while contributing to a stable supply of this crucial medical radioisotope for American patients,” stated Peter H. Hanlon, Assistant Deputy Administrator, Office of Material Management and Minimization, NNSA.
Although molybdenum has served a variety of purposes since it was recognized as an element in the 1700s, its medical benefits have mostly flown under society’s radar. Fortunately, NorthStar was able to develop a solution to its nationwide shortage and ensure that American patients are getting the help and treatment they need.