Technitium Tc-99m Drought May End

An agreement between St. Louis-based Covidien and Poland’s Institute of Atomic Energy will help end a shortage of technitium Tc-99m used in nuclear medicine tests that began last year when two aging nuclear reactors were shut down. The drought forced providers and facilities to schedule late night tests (when a supply comes in) or defer tests because the valuable isotope is unavailable.

Tc-99m is a short-lived radioisotope derived from molydenum-99 and used as in nuclear medicine, functional MRIs (fMRI), and other tests. The “m” stands for metastable, and the isotope, once drawn, only is useful for about six hours. It is preferred because it can be used in bone, cancer, blood flow, urology, and other tests, then disappear from the body.

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Several HCPCS Level II A and C codes report radiopharmaceuticals based on this isotope, and the problem has affected radiology procedural coding, as well. Every day nearly 55,000 Americans undergo tests requiring Tc-99m, according to the Los Angeles Times.  

Produced in only five nuclear reactors around the world, the supply dried up when the two reactors supplying the U.S. — Canada’s 60-year-old National Research Universal (NRU) and Netherland’s 50-year-old Petten — were shut down for repairs. The NRU may not be restarted, and Canada says it will be out of the radioisotope business by 2016 even if the reactor can be repaired. No facilities in the U.S. produce the medically necessary isotope.

Read more about the agreement and the future of radioisotopes in this LA Times article.

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