From isotopes to internships, UW-Madison partnership energizes growing Wisconsin company

Written By: Adam Malecek
College of Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison

In late 2019, staff at Beloit, Wisconsin-based company NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes opened a package filled with radioactive materials. The delivery sparked an ongoing research collaboration with the University of Wisconsin-Madison that’s accelerating the company’s emergence into an increasingly important healthcare market.

NorthStar produces medical radioisotopes and radiopharmaceuticals for diagnostic imaging procedures and targeted disease treatments, including cancer. The company had been looking for a convenient way to analyze the composition of materials through a process called neutron activation analysis.

NorthStar found that capability in the UW-Madison Nuclear Reactor, less than an hour’s drive away.

The facility is an exemplar of the Wisconsin Idea: Used in teaching engineering students and for a wide range of research applications, the reactor also provides a variety of services to both campus and off-campus users; in fact, over the reactor’s 50-plus-year history, its staff have irradiated materials for researchers studying everything from historical artifacts to bovine waste.

In their first project with NorthStar, reactor staff exposed various proprietary materials to neutrons, then returned the materials to the company for analysis.

“It was really beneficial to have a research reactor just down the road that could activate these materials for us, rather than having to ship samples across the country and rely on other labs to do the analysis,” says Dan De Vries, who directs medical radioisotope product development at NorthStar and spearheaded the collaboration.

That first project grew into multiple projects underway with the UW reactor, as well as a laboratory-use contract with UW-Madison. The contract enables qualified NorthStar employees who complete radiation safety training to conduct radioisotope experiments in the UW-Madison Characterization Laboratory for Irradiated Materials.

“This agreement expanded the amount of laboratory space that NorthStar can take advantage of, and our employees now have the ability to work semi-independently in the UW-Madison lab to advance company projects,” De Vries says. “This relationship with UW-Madison is enabling NorthStar to advance our progress, and it’s very valuable for us to have this resource and reactor expertise close by.”

De Vries says results from the company’s tests at UW-Madison are helping to determine NorthStar’s current and future development plans. For example, those experiments are informing engineering decisions for hot cells and related equipment for NorthStar’s production facility expansion that’s nearing completion in Beloit. Hot cells are specially designed shielded enclosures that allow workers to remotely handle radioactive material safely.

One of the NorthStar projects with UW-Madison has focused on copper-67, an emerging medical radioisotope. Radiopharmaceuticals using copper-67 could deliver targeted radiation that damages cancer cells’ DNA and destroys them, while minimizing harm to normal cells.

Clinical human trials with copper-67 are currently underway. However, the chronic short supply of copper-67 and other emerging radioisotopes presents a big challenge in advancing potential therapies. There are only a small number of facilities that can produce copper-67, and none that can yet produce it at commercial scale.

“For a lot of these up-and-coming radioisotopes, the supply has always been the challenge,” says Jim Harvey, NorthStar’s senior vice president and chief science officer. “You can’t effectively get clinical trials going if the supply is not there to support the trial. Having this relationship with UW-Madison and the research reactor helps us move our projects forward more quickly. NorthStar’s goal is to get some of these critical radioisotopes out on the market at the quantities that are needed, with a path forward to reach ever increasing commercial scale, if the research and regulatory approvals are successful.”

NorthStar also is working with staff at the UW cyclotron and the Department of Medical Physics, based in the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, to produce and experiment with radioisotopes.

De Vries says the company is interested in continuing to grow its relationship with UW-Madison into areas that include recruiting students for internships and graduates for full-time positions.

“In this specialized industry, it can be challenging to find qualified candidates who have experience in this area, ranging from the engineering side to radiochemistry,” DeVries says. “So we also see this relationship as a way to grow the pipeline of qualified candidates who might work at NorthStar in the future.”