IBA and SCK CEN partnership to produce rare radioisotope for cancer treatments

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Researchers imaging a tumor
The radioisotope Actinium-225 shows clear promise in the battle against cancer, but to fulfil its potential we will need to enable large-scale production of the rare substance. A collaboration between IBA – the world’s leading company in particle accelerator technology – and the Belgian Nuclear Research Center (SCK CEN) now makes this crucial step possible. The partners are constructing a production plant on the SCK CEN site in the Flemish city of Mol.

Using small amounts of radioactive substances in the diagnosis and treatment of disease is not a new concept. But nuclear medicine has evolved rapidly in recent years, thanks in part to the rise of radiotheranostics – a method using radioisotopes for a combination of therapy and diagnosis.

Patients receiving these treatments are injected with trace amounts of radioisotopes which emit small amounts of radiation as they quickly decay. Through various techniques (such as the camelid antibodies used by Precirix), the radioisotopes are sent off to the precise location of harmful cells to destroy them. The method is increasingly attracting attention, particularly in the battle against cancer where it can be used to reach hard-to-target tumors like brain metastases.

Read this article to learn more about Belgian startup Precirix, which raised an €80 million Series B in 2022 for its radiotheranostic approach!

“We are really at a turning point: radiotheranostics is truly becoming a new pillar of cancer treatments,” says Christophe Malice, director of corporate strategy and business development at IBA. “According to the latest predictions, the use of therapeutic nuclear medicine will grow by 35-40% annually over the next 10 years.”

Actinium-225: promising power and precision

IBA (Ion Beam Applications) is a Belgian company based in Louvain-la-Neuve, founded in 1986 by Yves Jongen as a spin-off of the University of Louvain. Nowadays, IBA is the world leader in particle accelerator technology and also a major player in the fields of proton therapy and radiopharmaceuticals. What makes radiotheranostics so effective, according to Malice, is that the approach is both systemic and precise: “You can target very specific locations as well as metastases throughout the body.” Healthy tissue is largely spared with this technique, a huge advantage over chemotherapy.

“We are really at a turning point: radiotheranostics is truly becoming a new pillar of cancer treatments” – Christophe Malice, IBA

In this field of radiotheranostics, the radio-isotope Actinium-225 has been in the spotlight for some time. There are many trials underway which clearly show its potential in fighting a large number of common cancers such as prostate, lung, colon, breast, pancreatic, kidney and blood cancers (leukemia and other rare forms). The radioisotope also shows promise in the treatment of rarer forms of cancer like glioblastoma, the deadliest form of a very invasive brain cancer.

“Actinium-225  seems to be more powerful and precise in killing off cancer cells than another important radio-isotope, called Lutetium-177,” says product manager Samy Bertrand of IBA. Actinium-225 is furthermore characterized by a long 10-day half-life (the time it takes for a radioisotope to decay by half). The long half-life is vital in terms of logistics and centralized distribution, as it means you can transport the radioisotopes over a considerable length of time. “For some isotopes, the half-life can be just a few hours, so having a half-life of 10 days is an excellent quality,” explains Bertrand.

Big-batch production

Large-scale production of high-quality Actinium-225 is crucial for making this solution commercially viable for pharmaceutical companies in the long term. For decades, the majority of the world’s Actinium-225 has been produced by a single supplier: the US Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Even with smaller amounts contributed by other international facilities, there has only been enough Actinium-225 created to treat fewer than 100 patients per year.

“According to the latest predictions, the use of therapeutic nuclear medicine will grow by 35-40% annually over the next 10 years.” – Christophe Malice, IBA

Now, thanks to a high-level collaborative initiative, there’s a breakthrough on the cards. In 2021, IBA launched an ambitious project together with the Belgian Nuclear Centre SCK CEN. SCK CEN is one of Belgium’s largest research centers. With a focus on peaceful applications of nuclear energy, such as nuclear medicine, SCK CEN has played a crucial role in the global production of medical radioisotopes for many years. Together, IBA and SCK CEN will develop a state-of-the-art production facility of Actinium-225 on the SCK CEN site in the Flemish city of Mol.

“IBA specializes in the machinery – unique particle accelerators – and SCK CEN provides the rare raw materials to make this production possible. We both have extensive expertise in this field that is perfectly complementary. Honestly, you couldn’t think of a better match,” says Malice.

In the coming weeks, the two partners will announce the launch of a new company that will ensure the development of the innovative production plant. The start of the construction of the plant is planned for early 2023. “We hope to provide the first batch of Actinium-225 in 2026,” declares Malice, who also adds that “this project is truly unique in Europe. Other similar projects can only achieve a much smaller production.”

Read this article about Abscint: a Belgian startup using radioactive material to spot harmful cells!

This initiative is also in alignment with the European recovery plan for Belgium, a plan in which the European Commission allocated investments for the development and production of both Actinium-225 and Lutetium-177 as promising isotopes. “It also fits perfectly in Europe’s ‘Beating Cancer Plan’ to strongly reduce the number of people dying from cancer by 2030,” says Malice. “Furthermore, our project makes Europe much less dependent of partners outside of Europe, like Russia,” adds Bertrand.