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Posts Tagged ‘TRIUMF’

–by Nigel S. Lockyer, Director

Last week I gave a colloquium at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), my former institution of 22 years. I talked about the on-again off-again worldwide medical isotope crisis and the proposed Canadian solutions. It was not what they really expected, since after all I am a particle physicist and Director of TRIUMF, a particle and nuclear physics laboratory. But that was part of the appeal!

Lots of friends and former colleagues from the department as well as quite a few from the medical school came to hear about the problem and our proposed solutions. Medical isotopes are used in roughly 40 million nuclear medicine procedures around the world and about half of these are in the U.S. The problem is a worldwide shortage of technetium-99m, or Tc-99m, the most popular medical isotope. It is used for heart perfusion imaging (which shows blood flow in the heart muscle, something a doctor wishes to see after a possible heart attack) and to identify bone metastasis. Tc-99m is made primarily in two ageing reactors, the NRU in Canada and the Petten in the Netherlands, both over 50 years old and showing signs of wear. About two years ago they managed to both go offline at the same time for an extended period for needed repairs. The ensuing medical isotope shortage made headlines around the world.

The good news is that my audience seemed to stay awake. Better still, after the lecture, I asked one of the students what they learned and the answer was simply that accelerators were the answer. I was pleased. The message was apparently clear to at least one person…I must say, at least one highly perceptive person. My experience tells me that the best colloquia are the ones where the listeners go home that evening and share the story with their families. The day after the colloquium, one faculty member told me that he had discussed the issues with his kids that evening. Mission accomplished…sort of!

Although there are several solutions to the medical isotope crisis being proposed with accelerators in Canada and now the U.S., and reactors in the U.S. and Europe, I focused in my talk primarily on the approach using small medical cyclotrons, a area of expertise of TRIUMF and Canadian industry (for example, ACSI in Vancouver, which grew out of a collaboration with TRIUMF two decades ago, and manufactures small medical cyclotrons with the prefix “TR”). Another company, BEST, located near Ottawa is also starting to manufacture small medical cyclotrons. In a nutshell, we think that a small cyclotron, a TR-19 for example, running with a few hundred micro-amps of beam current should be capable of supplying enough Tc-99m for a city of roughly 2 million people (think Vancouver). Much work is ongoing at the BC Cancer Agency, Lawson Health Centre in London Ontario, the Centre for Probe Development at McMaster University and TRIUMF. With luck, we will have a positive answer in about 15 months. The world will pay attention (we hope) and certainly our colleagues at Penn are paying attention since they have two small cyclotrons. Enough for Philadelphia? they asked.

Let’s get off topic for a bit. Penn houses the oldest medical school in the United States (1765) and today has over 1700 full time faculty today. That is a huge program. The medical school complex is like a small city itself: throw in Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (ranked as one of the best in the U.S. by U.S. News and World Report and ranked number one in pediatrics in 2008), the VA Hospital, the Children’s Seashore House Hospital…you get the picture. A new addition just down the street is the Abramson Cancer Center.  I was peripherally involved in the embryo of what is now the new Roberts Proton Therapy Centre. The Roberts Proton Therapy Center is the world largest proton therapy center associated with an academic medical center in the world and one of only six such centers in the United States. (Canada does not have proton therapy except the small ocular melanoma program at TRIUMF.) The Roberts Proton Therapy Center features five treatment rooms:  four gantries with 90-ton rotational machines designed to deliver the therapeutic beam at the precise angle prescribed by the physician, and one fixed-beam room. It is a very impressive facility. I have several friends who work at or are associated with the centre. Oh, did I mention it uses a cyclotron (manufactured by IBA, a Belgium company) to make the beams of protons. I am getting off topic—none of this was in my talk. Back to radiology.

Penn is also well known, to say the least, in radiology; they even maintain a short online history.  Quoting from this  article,

“Radiology at Penn began even before the beginning. In late 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen announced his seminal discovery of x-rays. Almost immediately, Penn Physics Professor Arthur Willis Goodspeed realized he had produced x-rays almost six years before, and had the physical plates to prove it. But rather than looking backward, Goodspeed looked forward instead. He quickly teamed with Penn surgeons J. William White and Charles Lester Leonard to produce, on February 4, 1896, one of the first recorded patient exposures using x-rays. That spring, Leonard was named the University Hospital’s first “skiagrapher,” and arguably the first academic department of radiology in the United States and, perhaps, the world was born.”

Roentgen's first x-ray

The original May 18th, 1903 NY Times article can be found online.

“The first x-rays (called “skiagraphs”) were taken of extremities. By June of 1896, the chief of surgery used a skiagraph to locate a toy jack that a child had swallowed. Within months, several hospital departments were using roentgen rays for diagnosis, surgical planning, and follow-up. In 1898 , Charles Lester Leonard used X-rays as a method to identify urinary stones. He also wrote the first paper on the hazards of X-rays.”

That subject is still topical as we all know.

“In 1905 Henry Pancoast described the utility of bismuth and then barium for contrast in radiology studies.” Among many other contributions, he is known for his description of Pancoast’s tumor , a large cancerous tumour in the lung most likely caused by smoking. “He also later described the relationship of prolonged irradiation and the development of leukemia and the use of X-rays in the treatment of Hodgkin’s disease and leukemias. Henry Pancoast was appointed as the first Professor of Radiology (roentgenology) in the United States.”

“More recently, in 1964 David E. Kuhl developed the technique of Single Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT) and the principles of Positron Emission Tomography (PET). In 1976 the world’s first FDG (fluorodeoxyglucose) PET image was obtained at Penn, starting an ongoing new era in functional imaging.” How big is that? The department currently performs more than 1,045,000 procedures annually. You get the picture…a busy place clinically and in research.

In the last several months Penn has been in the press for developing an F-18 labeled molecule that attaches to amyloid plaque, a possible cause (or result) of Alzheimer’s disease. This is not the first such tracer to attach to the plaque. The best known is Pittsburgh Compound B or PIB that is labeled with C-11 which has only a 20 minutes half life (C-11 is an isotope of carbon with one less neutron) . PIB works well, and it has been used at TRIUMF and UBC. However only medical centres with cyclotrons can make PIB and thus its success has set off a rush to make a similar compound labeled with F-18 (not to be confused with CF-18, a Canadian jet fighter), which may be more practical because it can be shipped to a 2-hour radius. Eli Lilly just bought the small start-up company that developed the successful radiotracer. TRIUMF is not yet at the level of developing breakthrough radiotracers like this one. Once they are developed elsewhere, we make them and use them for research or supply them for clinical use to the local research communities.

Penn’s Professor Cam Kuch developed a molecule EF5, which attaches to hypoxic tumours (tumours with reduced oxygen content). These tumours are radiation resistant and often require some treatment other than radiation….for example chemo-therapy. TRIUMF’s Mike Adam developed the chemistry to attach F-18 to this molecule and it is now used in PET imaging at the BC Cancer Agency for some patients to understand more about their cancerous tumour. Thanks Cam. Thanks Mike.

I finished my talk, acknowledged my TRIUMF, UBC and BC Cancer colleagues who teach me about all the great research they are doing here in BC and I realized by the high level of interest at Penn in what we were doing that I had successfully brought coals to Newcastle ….or medical isotopes to Penn.


Following the Fukushima Story

Wednesday, March 16th, 2011

— By T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning and Communications

The series of events at the Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan following the massive earthquake and tsunamis will be something many of us will remember forever. If we ever doubted that we truly live in the “atomic age” as it was so fondly dubbed in the 1960s, we must surrender conception that now. From medical isotopes that diagnose disease and save lives to nuclear power plants that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and sometimes breakdown and create massive drama, we humans do live in a world that is controlled and affected by “physics” beyond the human eye.

As a science communicator for Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, I’ve been working almost non-stop to help track, interpret, and translate the unfolding drama of the heroic efforts to cool down and shut down the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plants. With the team here at TRIUMF, we have provided 15 radio interviews, five TV interviews, and numerous print comments in addition to online exchanges. Its not that we have special communications channels, its not that we operate a nuclear power plant, and its not that we have a crystal ball.

No, its that we know the difference between a dose and a dose rate; we have people who can translate the stream of high-quality information coming straight from Japanese twitter feeds (TRIUMF’s first PhD student is a now a Univ of Tokyo professor in Japan who is leading much of the scientific and technical communication efforts in the crisis); and we’ve been around radiation before. We are a particle and nuclear physics laboratory and we have radiation health and safety people that rival the best in the world. We don’t deal in quantities of radiation or material nearly as large as a nuclear power plant, of course, but we can shed some light on the issues and the context of what constitutes significant and what does not. In a way, providing this interpretation and even guidance is part of our responsibility as publicly funded researchers.

But it is a challenging and frustrating situation. Getting hard facts about what is going on in Fukushima Daiichi is difficult. This is because of language barriers, distance/transmission delays, cultural attitudes (parts of Japanese culture are more reserved than North America and its media), and the tremendous concentration required to actually focus on resolving the situation. You’ll notice that when the fire department is extinguishing a house fire, its only afterward that the fire chief starts talking with the media. All of her attention is on managing the crisis. As I said, its a tough challenge to balance getting the job and sharing news with the public—particularly when it might impact them.

I’ve thought about trying to blog about the situation, but the reality is that I’d be behind and since we don’t have all the facts, some of it would be speculation. I can say that the west coast of the U.S. and Canada, despite the deteroriating fuel material at Daiichi, is still quite safe from “blowover” of radioactive dust. The latest summary of where things are at is from the Washington Post with this nice graphic. There are even online geiger counters in Tokyo where you can check the “background radiation” weather.

My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Japan. What is making headlines this week will change their country forever…as it will the entire world.


–by Nigel S. Lockyer, Director

Did you ever hear or think of a word and then have it seem to pop up everywhere? Well, for me, the word is water. Pick your word and count how many different ways it comes up in conversation, on television, in the news, or however else you encounter information on a daily basis.

I’m interested in the origin of water on our planet. Its not as obvious as you might think. Over the past few years, I have followed the subject in the popular-science press and have read a couple of books to try to understand the answer—in short, no firm conclusion. But more on this later.  First, let’s follow water…water always flows downhill, right?

In Canada, water is ubiquitous. In science, water is ubiquitous. In technology, water is ubiquitous. But let’s start with the obscure. TRIUMF is ordering a new water-jet cutter to replace a plasma-arc cutter for our machine shop. The water jet is supposed to be better because it doesn’t heat the metal during cutting. Hard to believe that water cuts metal…but it does—abrasives in the water help—because the pressures can reach 50,000 psi. The modules which contain the infrastructure associated with our isotope-production program are cooled with water; and recently, we diagnosed some regular leaks due to poor quality control of the brazing. (We need to fix that!) Oh, going back in history, it occurs to me my thesis used a water target…but I wasn’t so interested in water back then.

The Meson Building, the original science research building of TRIUMF, is adjacent to Cyclotron Building (which holds the world’s largest cyclotron) and contains our eye-cancer therapy centre and many of our material science experiments with muons. Well, the roof leaks, you guessed it–water. This doesn’t phase me too much because every lab in the world has been designed, I am sure, with leaky roofs. My favorite is the meson building at Fermilab. (Maybe there’s something about meson buildings!) Bring your “wellies” (short for Wellingtons or … hard to believe.. fashionable rubber rain boots in Vancouver).

Ok, more water. The Saturday morning physics lecture this week for local high-school students was by Paul Percival from Simon Fraser University. He talked about supercritical water and how he is able to study chemical reactions in a pressure vessel at several hundred degrees and hundreds of bars pressure using spin-polarized muons. I was impressed with one potential application he described — that supercritical water can be used to burn “toxic waste” such as old nerve gas from weapons stockpiles. He showed a very cool picture of what looked like a flame burning in water…figure that out. I was waiting for him to say he had made “fake water” where he replaced the hydrogen with muonium. Wonder what that would taste like? Drink fast!

Flame burning under water

Flame burning under water

The second talk was about pulsars by Ingrid Stairs from the University of British Columbia. (Nobody ever says the full name of the university, just “UBC” is good enough in Canada. The accent is on the “U,” draw it out to last about half a second, then and say “BC” quickly. Now you have a Vancouver accent.) Having mentioned Vancouver, how could we not talk about salmon? So two years ago there were only one million salmon that returned to the Fraser River for spawning. A Royal Commission was set up by the government to understand why they were missing 9 million salmon…the best theory was that new salmon farms, located along Vancouver Island where the young salmon pass on their way out to sea, were polluting the water. Each year there are usually 10 million salmon. While the committee was investigating, the run this year harvested 35 million salmon. The most in memory! But back to pulsars…

Pulsars are way out there in terms of extreme environments. I was amazed when one of the young people asked, “Are there any practical applications?” I started science because I thought it was fun…thank goodness there have been a FEW practical applications since then! By the way, the electricity for my laptop comes from hydro-electric power in northern BC…more water at work. Some time ago I was talking with the president of the University of Victoria, David Turpin. (The University of Victoria is one of the 11 universities that own and operate TRIUMF). He was telling me about their new underwater projects off the coast of Vancouver Island called Neptune and Venus. Very cool stuff. The ocean floor is being instrumented to monitor all kinds of ecological and geophysical indicators, establishing some of the first time-series trends across large surfaces of the ocean.

Then I remember another way water is connected – the U.S. particle physics and nuclear physics science budgets are part of the Energy and Water Appropriations package passed by the Congress. How weird is that? Then I watched a Discovery Channel TV show on the crash of the Air France jet over the Atlantic on its way from Brazil to Paris. They think the problem was super-cooled water, formed in a thunder storm at 35,000 feet, that clogged the air-speed detectors, rendering them useless. This may have effectively caused much of the online software to fail.

The colour of water is blue as you probably know; it isn’t clear. In fact, the colour of water is thought to be the only material whose color is due to electronic vibrational transitions rather than just interaction of photons with electrons in the material.

Oh, all this talk about water makes me thirsty for a nice class of cold, not too cold, maybe 25 degrees, pure, Ok not too pure, I do want a few minerals, bubbly of course, CO2 filled (does that count as carbon sequestration?), glass of blue liquid water…derived from outgassing of the earth’s mantle that had solidified from molten rock in the early earth producing an atmosphere with water vapour…or perhaps derived from a comet…or maybe it was an asteroid, or maybe interstellar dust grains with fractal surfaces, that crashed to earth 4.5 billion years ago!

Now, what was I doing before this?  And why am I all wet?


by Nigel S. Lockyer, Director

The short answer is YES. And not because its an easier way to carry two cups of coffee without spilling them or because elevators remind me of Albert Einstein’s famous musings about acceleration and frames of reference. No, its because the TRIUMF main office building presently has no elevator.

The auditorium and the theory meeting room are on the second floor. During the rainy season (OK, let me be more precise, during the winter months), when Vancouverites are not enjoying beach volleyball by the thousands, pounding the Grouse Grind, sailing on English Bay, or picking up after their dogs, a few science-curious people (more than 100) show up at TRIUMF for two lectures on numerous Saturdays during the school year. Lecturers are from Simon Fraser University, the University of British Columbia, or TRIUMF.

Attendance is strictly limited by our auditorium size. People are turned away. Some gung-ho high-school students travel an hour by bus, drag their mom or dad along, and listen to lecturers about cosmology, radiation therapy for ocular melanoma at TRIUMF using a proton beam, the higgs boson, stars exploding…and so on. But what happens when grandma or grandpa shows up? Well sometimes she or he gets a helping hand up the stairs and in some cases it just doesn’t work…and they don’t come back. OK, enough is enough. Somebody build us an elevator!

Its not just for the public. When we have a Board of Management meeting at TRIUMF — a group of 40 people, vice-presidents of research from our owner universities — the on-site catering staff must carry 40 lunches and desserts up and down the stairs. Let’s see now, 40 people, who drink two coffees and one water, that’s 120 pounds, then add food…and it is a lot of trips. OK, enough is enough. Somebody build us an elevator!

Our former Director, one of the founders of TRIUMF, is Erich Vogt. A tall man, a heroic man. A bionic man…well at least a bionic knee. He fights his 80+ year old body up those stairs every day to his second-floor office. OK, enough is enough. Somebody build us an elevator!

Now a Vancouver hero and Olympic icon is Rick Hansen, of Man in Motion tour fame. He was a student at UBC and yet he hasn’t been to TRIUMF yet. One of my goals is to get Rick to TRIUMF. I am a big fan of his as are many at TRIUMF and in Canada. However, we can’t get him to the auditorium, since he is in a wheel chair. OK, enough is enough. Somebody build us an elevator!

Finally, we got it. Within about two months, TRIUMF will have a new elevator.

Oh, I forgot to tell you, it goes up only one floor.