A team of scientists from Lancashire have made a breakthrough in producing Lead-212, a medical radioisotope for treating cancer, which is in short supply.

The discovery, hailed as “immensely exciting” by Dr Jane Sosabowski at Barts Cancer Institute, was made by scientists at the Nation Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) working in its Preston laboratory at Springfields.

Lead-212 is used in an emerging cancer treatment known as Targeted Alpha Therapy. This type of treatment has gained traction because it kills cancer cells directly, while minimising the effects of treatment in healthy parts of the body.

However, a global shortage of Lead-212 and other key medical radioisotopes means few cancer patients currently benefit from Targeted Alpha Therapy.

The breakthrough at NNL’s Preston Laboratory takes the UK closer to having its own home-grown supply of the radioisotope, which in the years to come could be transformative for cancer patients.

The next step is for the process to go through quality assurance and scale up work.

To achieve this, NNL is working closely with clinicians and academics at Queen Mary University of London, King’s College London and their associated nuclear medicine departments at St Bartholomew’s Hospital and Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust.

The team behind the breakthrough is headed by Nick Hanigan, from Preston.

Mr Hanigan said: “Preston Laboratory is a centre of excellence for nuclear-based research.  Our team is applying the same skills and processes we have developed over decades in relation to environmental restoration, to now solve some real challenges in healthcare.

“A better supply of Lead-212 could impact the lives and wellbeing of cancer patients around the world, but this particular breakthrough is a single aspect of our work on medical radioisotopes, a tool used on a daily basis by every hospital in the UK to diagnose and treat health conditions including heart disease and thyroid disease and for the early detection and assessment of brain disorders such as epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.

“The team is immensely proud of what it has achieved so far and looking forward to the opportunities that lay ahead.”   

Dr Jane Sosabowski is Reader in Molecular Imaging at Queen Mary’s Barts Cancer Institute and researcher at City of London Cancer Research UK-RadNET.

She said:  “This new initiative is immensely exciting, offering a huge boost to the future of molecular radiotherapy treatment and personalised medicine in the UK.

“Barts Cancer Institute and Radionuclides for Health UK welcomes the leadership that NNL is showing on this issue. It is an important step in re-establishing UK supply of medical radioisotopes and securing the future of research in this important sphere of human health.”

Mark Menzies MP, in whose constituency Preston Laboratory is based, said: “This breakthrough will come as welcome news for cancer patients and the NHS, providing a domestic supply of this game changing treatment to the NHS as production is scaled up.

“This is a demonstration of the fantastic skills base and spirit of innovation at Springfields, and underlines the need to safeguard the site’s future.

“As Britain ushers in a new golden age of nuclear, the NNL are demonstrating the wider benefits of the nuclear industry, extending far beyond power generation, and I hope that this will be the first of many such developments.”