MU, MURR magnets for key radioisotope research

Gahl, in a brown tweed jacket and lanyard, looks at a large magnet in a blue casing.

MU Engineering Professor and MURR Senior Research Scientist John Gahl demonstrates a very powerful electromagnet, intended to separate therapeutic radioisotopes.

Radioisotopes are critical in the field of radiopharmacology, and the University of Missouri Research Reactor (MURR) is one of the world’s foremost creators of those radioisotopes. Most elements can only have their therapeutic radioisotopes separated with use of a very powerful electromagnet. And Mizzou Engineering’s John Gahl just received funding to set up and operate one.

Gahl is a senior research scientist at MURR and a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Mizzou. He also holds a joint appointment in the Nuclear Engineering Program at Missouri S&T. He and his MURR colleagues J. David Robertson, Peter Norgard and Barry Higgins recently received more than $760,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop and test an electromagnetic radioisotope separator and train researchers at MURR how to utilize it properly.

The Food and Drug Administration recently approved Lutathera, a drug that treats neuroendocrine tumors (as in pancreatic cancer). The active radioisotope in Lutathera, lutetium-177, is produced at MURR. The goal of this equipment and program is to separate out other potentially useful therapeutic isotopes — such as samarium-153, holmium-166, erbium-169 and ytterbium-175 — in order to attack other types of cancer and similar diseases through radiopharmacology.

“It comes down to, for samarium … how do you separate the various isotopes?” Gahl explained. “You take a radioisotope sample, and you heat it up and volatilize it, and then you ionize the neutrals. You then accelerate the ions into a magnetic field, and as they go through the field, they will bend related to their mass.

“At the end of a very big magnet, they will separate by maybe a millimeter in trajectory, and you gather the radioisotopes up and go make your cancer drug.”

Radiopharmacology is an emerging field, and one that can help cure or limit the effects of certain types of cancer without the harmful side effects of chemotherapy or external beam radiation by targeting receptor sites on, and specific to, cancer cells.

“If you have a clever biochemist, they can create molecules that will go to those receptor sites. When it goes to the receptor site and locks on to a tumor cell, it can be taken in by that cell,” Gahl said. “If that molecule is linked to a radioisotope, then it goes into the cell, and when the radioisotope decays, it destroys the cell and the surrounding cells of the tumor.”

With the success of Lutathera and other drugs, including alpha-emitters, approved for use or nearing approval, Gahl said it’s an exciting time to be working in the field. Thanks to the research strengths of MU and the capabilities of MURR, much of the future of radiopharmacology will be shaped right here in Mid-Missouri.

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