A nondescript factory in Richmond founded by Old World craftsmen has become the global go-to place for isotope-producing cyclotrons.
Abutting the Fraser River in Richmond, on a five-hectare site that is home to Ebco Industries Ltd., stands an unadorned, prefabricated building. Inside the immaculate space is a collection of what appear to be giant Lego blocks painted a deep topaz blue, with gleaming copper interiors and tails of snaking cables. A milling crowd, munching catered canapés and sipping coffee, contemplates these metal cubes like aesthetes at an art exhibit. The cerebral gathering includes physicists, nuclear-medicine physicians and researchers and elegantly dressed Asian businessmen here to write a multi-million dollar cheque for one of these blue boxes.
The metal boxes are cyclotrons, and their prosaic structure, about the size of an SUV sans wheels, belies the key role they play in the rapidly advancing field of nuclear medicine. Equally incongruous are the two men behind their construction: family patriarch Helmut Eppich and son Richard Eppich are very approachable and perfectly ordinary in appearance. Richard is CEO of Ebco and its sister company, Advanced Cyclotron Systems Inc. (ACSI), which manufactures the cyclotrons. Helmut, who bequeathed leadership of both companies to his son in 2009, chairs both entities. Helmut and Richard are highly regarded by visitors at this open house, many of whom consider ACSI to be the world’s top manufacturer of cyclotrons, surpassing its three global competitors: health-care titans and cyclotron manufacturers General Electric Co., Siemens Global of Germany and IBA Group of Belgium.
The science of a cyclotron
Founding Fathers: Helmut Eppich (left), Stefan
Burger (centre) and Hugo Eppich.
If the word “cyclotron” sounds like it was appropriated from a science fiction novel, that might be justified by the fact that these devices accelerate subatomic particles to velocities approaching the speed of light. Invented in the 1930s, cyclotrons have undergone a renaissance within medicine for two key reasons. First, cyclotrons like the ones ACSI makes are capable of producing technetium-99m, a radioactive, silvery metal. Falling under the category of elements known as isotopes, the metal remains significantly radioactive for just a few hours. During that time, small amounts can be safely injected into the human body, where it gives off radiation that provides an unparalleled look at the body’s innermost workings. Doctors use handy acronyms to describe the sophisticated detectors that generate these images, which include PET (positron emission tomography) and SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography). The dynamics are complex, but the bottom line is that nothing gives a clearer, more detailed picture for diagnosing challenging medical conditions such as cancer or heart disease than technetium-99m.
Secondly, as ungainly as a cyclotron might appear, it is much more compact – not to mention cheaper and safer – than a nuclear reactor. Yet reactors are a source of most of the technetium-99m used in an estimated 20 million scans performed around the world annually, according to global health science company Nordion Inc.
In recent years the world has been relying on one reactor for almost half of that global supply. The National Research Universal (NRU) facility is located at Chalk River, Ontario, a few hours west of Ottawa. It uses weapons-grade uranium to create another isotope, called molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), which decays into technetium-99m at laboratories and hospitals, just before it is injected into a patient. Just two years ago, NRU was producing from 80-85 per cent of Canada’s supply of Mo-99 and about 40 per cent of the world's supply, according to Natural Resources Canada.
An elaborate isotope manufacturing and distribution system has been in place for decades, but the Chalk River reactor, which became operational in 1945, is limping into retirement and set to be mothballed in 2016. Structural problems and leaking caused shutdowns from 2007 to 2009. In 2009, a three-month closure occurred when only one of the world’s other four reactors was producing isotopes, resulting in a worldwide technetium-99m shortage.
Ebco Industries and ACSI today.
The vulnerability of reactors was also highlighted last year when an earthquake and tsunami disabled Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant on March 11, crippling four of its six reactors and creating radiation leaks that are still not repaired. Finally, one other factor has the research and medical communities searching for an alternative to nuclear reactors. While chasing down stolen weapons-grade uranium of the kind produced by nuclear reactors is a staple of such fictional thrillers as television’s 24, the non-fictional nuclear family quietly harbours fears that such a plot is in the realm of possibility.
For ACSI, concerns about traditional sources of isotopes have presented unprecedented opportunity. Back in 2009, Richard and Helmut contemplated technetium-99m shortages and realized there was a business opportunity just waiting to be seized. Over the next two years, ACSI shifted into high gear, ramping up production from a few cyclotrons a year to nearly a dozen. ACSI also trademarked the technetium-99m its cyclotrons produce, calling it CycloTec. In 2011, ACSI sold 11 cyclotrons at a cost of between $2 million and $10 million each, depending on their technetium-99m producing capacity. (The cyclotrons’ names: TR 13, TR 19, TR 24 and TR 30, identify their available power for accelerating particles.) ACSI has now cornered nearly half of the global cyclotron market. Currently, says Richard, ACSI is booked well into 2013, with orders from Japan, France, Germany, the U.S. and Canada. At the time of writing, just three months into the current fiscal year, 75 per cent of both ACSI’s and Ebco’s sales targets were already achieved, Richard says. (Ebco manufactures three-tonne magnets and vacuum chambers for ACSI cyclotrons.) The biggest problem now is one every business would love to have: its 27,900 square metres of manufacturing floor space is filled to capacity with workers toiling to ensure that orders are met, says Richard. Ebco is also considering starting an in-house program to train welders and fitters to the level required to build its high-tech machinery, as the trades schools in B.C. currently aren’t meeting the company’s requirements, he adds.