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Nuclear medicine research makes headway

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On Oct. 30, the University of Saskatchewan and University of Regina were jointly awarded a $5-million grant to increase the province’s capacity for nuclear medicine and imaging research.

The Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation awarded the grant, which was the largest sum ever doled out by the centre. Efforts in recruiting leading researchers to the province will receive $3.5 million of the grant and the remaining $1.5 million will be invested in research equipment and infrastructure.

“It’s a great recognition of the work that the [U of S] is doing,” said Paul Babyn, department head of medical imaging for the Saskatoon Health Region and the [U of S. “We spent quite a few months putting the proposal together with a large team of researchers and academics.”

The grant will establish two research chairs at the U of S, one in nuclear imaging and another in nuclear chemistry or radiopharmacy. It will also enable the hiring of a research coordinator at the U of S to organize clinical trials of new radiopharmaceuticals, which are pharmaceuticals that contain a radioactive isotope.

In addition, the funds will support the development of the province’s first cyclotron, a particle accelerator scheduled to become operational in 2016. Cyclotrons are crucial to producing radiopharmaceuticals, which have previously been flown in from Hamilton, Ont.

“The synchrotron, or [Canadian Light Source], generates light radiation at a variety of wavelengths,” Babyn said. “The cyclotron is similar in that it generates types of energy, but it does that through electrons or protons which are accelerated, which allows us to create radioisotope material.”

The radioisotope inside radiopharmaceuticals acts as a tracer inside the human body. A gamma imaging device easily detects the radioactive tracer atom, allowing researchers to study the function of vital organs.

“The development of nuclear tracers can allow more personalized medicines which are customized for the individual patient,” Babyn said. “Although we do inject a small dose of radioactive material, the patient has no reaction to it — typically because it’s such a small amount.”

The Fedoruk Centre is an independent, not-for-profit subsidiary of the U of S and is funded by the Saskatchewan government.

“Saskatchewan has a proud legacy of leadership in the area of nuclear medicine, through the work of pioneers like Sylvia Fedoruk,” said Jeremy Harrison, Saskatchewan minister responsible for innovation, in a press release. “Through these investments, the Fedoruk Centre is helping shape our province’s innovation future by putting Saskatchewan in the forefront in areas of nuclear research, development and innovation.”

Babyn said Saskatchewan is one of the only provinces without an operational cyclotron.

“The province recognizes the future growth of nuclear medicine and the potential of that and wants to be sure we have the infrastructure needed for that in the province,” said Babyn.

Saskatchewan has a “proud history of nuclear innovation,” Babyn said. In 1951, U of S medical physicist Harold Johns and his graduate students, including Sylvia Fedoruk, became the first researchers in the world to successfully treat a cancer patient using Cobalt-60 radiation therapy.

“Nuclear medicine is a growing area within medical imaging and there’s a lot of promise in this field,” Babyn said. “This will provide a great opportunity, not just for faculty research but also for student research. We’ll be able to grow in the coming years as we have increased research here on campus in these exciting areas, supporting patients as well as supporting the development of science.”

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