NorthStar Finds Way to Produce Medical Isotope Quickly, Safely

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal Online
By Kathleen Gallagher of the Journal Sentinel
Sept. 18, 2011

Glenn Isensee, NorthStar's chief technology officer, works on a device that can help produce a critical medical isotope.
Glenn Isensee, NorthStar's chief technology officer, works on a device that can help produce a critical medical isotope.

As problems go, NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes LLC was founded on a big one.

Production issues at several nuclear power plants outside the U.S. during the last few years and worries about nuclear proliferation prompted the federal government in 2009 to look for ways to make a critical medical isotope more safely and closer to home.

Fortunately for NorthStar, its principals understood the situation and were already working on a solution.

Now the Madison company, which plans to eventually move its headquarters to Beloit, says it hopes to get approval from federal regulators and begin shipping that solution to nuclear pharmacies by the second quarter of 2012.

NorthStar is aiming to use that solution to produce as much as half of the required U.S. supply of the medical isotope, called technetium-99m, within the next two to three years, said George Messina, NorthStar's managing director. The company also could eventually hire as many as 150 people in Rock County, mostly for scientific positions, he said.

Jerry Abrahamson works on the NorthStar machine.
Jerry Abrahamson works on the
NorthStar machine.

"They have all the right people and the right intellectual property, and we just see the market opportunity as being fantastic," said Jon Coulter, managing director of Hendricks Holdings Co. Inc. in Beloit.

It is estimated there's a nearly $1 billion market for the isotope, said Coulter, whose group invested $6 million in NorthStar in late 2010.

NorthStar, founded in 2006, has raised another $5 million from its partners and pulled in $1 million in grant money from the National Nuclear Security Administration, the division of the Department of Energy that is trying to solve the isotope issue.

The isotope is critical for certain medical imaging tests that diagnose, monitor and treat some cancers as well as heart and brain diseases. Experts estimate roughly 50,000 diagnostic procedures that use the isotope are done in the U.S. each day.

Technetium-99m is made from a radioactive substance called molybdenum-99, or mo-99. Two older nuclear reactors - one in Canada and one in the Netherlands - use highly enriched uranium to make the majority of mo-99 for the U.S. market.

Through investments in some nuclear pharmacies in the early 2000s, Messina and business partners Glenn Isensee and Jim Harvey became aware of the problems with the supply of mo-99, and the possibility that they had a way to fix them.

"Jim said, 'You've got to take a look at this technology - we've got something that's pretty hot here,' " Messina said.

NorthStar had an exclusive license on the technology from PG Research Foundation Inc., a Lisle, Ill.-based company affiliated with GCI, the investment office of Lands' End founder Gary Comer's family.

The technology became the basis for NorthStar's TechneGen, a device that nuclear pharmacies would use to separate technetium-99m from mo-99.

NorthStar has an agreement with the Missouri University Research Reactor to begin producing mo-99 that pharmacies could use in its device next year. NorthStar has also signed a tentative agreement with GE Hitachi, one of three other companies that received a grant from the National Nuclear Security Administration to work on the isotope problem. Under the agreement, NorthStar would process GE Hitachi's irradiated material into mo-99 for nuclear pharmacy use.

NorthStar would do that processing in a plant that the company plans to build in Beloit.

"We hope to break ground this year for a facility in Beloit that will handle support work, and continue construction in the next year or two for a facility that will house our linear accelerators and laboratories," Messina said.

Scott Moffatt, a NorthStar VP, examines the device, called the TechneGen.
Scott Moffatt, a NorthStar VP, examines
the device, called the TechneGen
.

NorthStar is planning to buy 14 linear accelerators that could be making half the country's mo-99 supply in Beloit by the end of 2014, he said. Linear accelerators are more powerful versions of the radiation equipment used to treat cancer patients; they cost millions of dollars.

NorthStar has already been making mo-99 in linear accelerators at Argonne National Laboratory, west of Chicago, and has been proving its separation chemistry there and at the National Research Council of Canada, Harvey said.

NorthStar says its mo-99 production processes will provide a reliable supply with no uranium or uranium waste products. So while competitors have to figure out how to store the highly radioactive waste they produce, NorthStar can dispose of the smaller amount of waste it produces more easily, Messina said.

Also, because the company handles so many more parts of the network that gets the product to the customer, it can produce mo-99 at a much lower cost than competitors, he said.

Coulter said he believes NorthStar is as much as one to three years ahead of the competition in terms of being able to produce mo-99 in commercial quantities.

"We like pretty much everything about this and we're happy with how things have gone so far," Coulter said. "It's going to be a great company here in Rock County."