Portugal: University of Coimbra creates particle accelerator for cancer diagnosis

Coimbra – The University of Coimbra has developed a world-leading particle accelerator that makes accurate and reliable diagnosis of prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer more accessible, it said.

The Institute of Nuclear Sciences Applied to Health (ICNAS), a unit of the University of Coimbra (UC), has developed, in partnership with the Belgian multinational IBA, a particle accelerator (cyclotron), which will optimize the production of the isotope Gallium- essential for the diagnosis of prostate cancer and pancreatic cancer, and hitherto difficult to access, in an investment of two million euros.

The technology for the production of this isotope and radiopharmaceutical transformation has been fully developed by ICNAS and the creation of cyclotrons to extract gallium-68 optimally, purer and more efficiently was done in collaboration with one of the largest manufacturers of cyclotrons the IBA, the project coordinator, Francisco Alves, from the UC institute, told the Lusa agency during a visit to the Belgian plant near Brussels, an initiative which was also attended by university rector João Gabriel Silva.

The first cyclotron of this type is expected to arrive in Coimbra in March and its production by the IBA (using technology patented by ICNAS) for everyone will advance after its validation in the UC.

This particle accelerator has the specificity of working ‘at two energies’. If the cyclotron previously operated only with the extraction of the beam at 18 million electron volts (MeV), this new accelerator also allows the extraction of 13MeV, which optimizes the production of Gallium-68, said Francisco Alves.

Despite its two meters high and wide, the accelerator weighs about 17 tons, and, inside, there is what the ICNAS researcher calls “alchemy of the XXI century.”

It transforms water into fluorine-18 (the most widely used isotope for cancer diagnosis) and will now transform a solution where zinc (a stable, naturally occurring element) is dissolved in Gallium-68, a radioactive element.

This radioactive element could completely change access to diagnosis from radiopharmaceuticals to neuroendocrine (pancreas) and prostate tumors, says the project coordinator.

“Neuroendocrine tumors are very aggressive and very deadly, and their early detection is very important,” he said.

So far, the process to use Gallium-68 for these diagnostic tests was very expensive, having to buy a generator of this isotope, which costs about 70 thousand euros, which can take a year and a half to arrive and then only lasts six months, with the capacity to produce two to three doses per day.

“We are making gallium much more accessible, the test is at a lower cost,” and produces the doses according to the needs of the health system, he said.

The director of ICNAS, Antero Abrunhosa, points out that the “Gallium shortage is a global problem”, pointing even to the case of a letter from the American Association of Nuclear Medicine to the US FDA agency (similar to the National Drug Authority and Health Products – Infarmed) that in 2018 warned of the lack of this isotope and stated that the solution could be in Europe, from the technology developed in Coimbra.

According to Antero Abrunhosa, the technology is already patented in Europe and is underway in other countries, notably the United States of America.

In Portugal, they expect within weeks to have the permission of Infarmed to produce and distribute Gallium-68 from the cyclotron, whose tests with this isotope, at this time, reach a waiting list that can reach three months.

In addition to improving the diagnosis of cancer, this isotope also allows “to assess the degree of disease progression, to determine the best therapy or whether the therapy being followed is effective or not,” said the director of ICNAS.