/ 4 April 2022

NRF-iThemba LABS commits to combatting cancer on the African continent


At the tip of Africa lies the largest particle accelerator facility in the Southern Hemisphere and the only cyclotron facility of its kind on the African continent. iThemba Laboratories for Accelerator Based Science (LABS), a research facility of the National Research Foundation (NRF), operates from sites in Cape Town and Johannesburg, offering applied and fundamental research capacity and infrastructure for  accelerator-based sciences. 

The research activities of iThemba LABS are primarily funded through annual grant funding by the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), administered through the NRF. The NRF is an independent statutory body established through the National Research Foundation Act (Act No 23 of 1998). As a government mandated research and science development agency, the NRF funds research, the development of high-end human capacity and critical research infrastructure to promote knowledge production across all disciplinary fields. 

The workhorse of iThemba LABS is the Separated Sector Cyclotron (SSC) which was commissioned in 1985 to provide accelerated particle beams with energies that can reach 200 MeV for protons. Since 2016, the SSC delivers beams of a large variety of ions and particles to two user groups, namely radioisotope production and basic and applied research, which includes among others radiation biophysics. In addition, iThemba LABS has two other particle accelerators, namely the 3-MV Tandetron and the 6-MV Tandem that are dedicated to Ion Beam Analysis (IBA) and Accelerator Mass spectrometry (AMS) respectively. The research infrastructure available at iThemba LABS services more than 500  users from local universities and international collaborators, and provides research projects to about 60 postgraduate students per annum.

iThemba LABS has been producing radioisotopes for both the local and international market for over 30 years. The radiopharmaceutical/radiochemical production process includes the bombardment of the target material with charged particles; chemical separation of the radioisotope from the target material using radiochemistry methods; compounding of the final radiopharmaceutical/radiochemical; and packaging the product for the local and international market according to regulatory requirements. These products are produced according to current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) in specialised facilities and supplied for clinical application.

iThemba LABS is one of a few facilities in the world that produce irradiated 82Rb targets for the production of 82Sr and 68Ge/68Ga-generators, and is the exclusive producer of 123I radiopharmaceuticals in South Africa. iThemba LABS is home to a dedicated 11-MeV cyclotron for the production of 18F-FDG that is supplied to PET-facilities in the Western Cape for clinical applications and research studies. In addition, iThemba LABS is the only producer of Ultra High Vacuum 22Na positron sources in the world. The products are delivered routinely to over 40 nuclear medicine departments at private and public healthcare facilities throughout South Africa and parts of the South African Development Community (SADC), as well as to over 100 clients worldwide.

The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that cancer will become the leading cause of death on the African continent by 2030, with at least a million people in Africa dying of cancer annually. This means that cancer will overtake HIV/AIDS, malaria and other infectious diseases. It should be noted that early detection of cancer greatly increases the chances of tumour control and treatment. The number of patients that require access to radiopharmaceuticals for diagnosis and therapy is expected to increase annually by around 20%. So, how do you contribute to the increasing demand for radiopharmaceuticals both locally and internationally? You increase your production yield and invest in the development of new products that improve the efficacy of cancer diagnosis through research. 

iThemba LABS embarked on the establishment of the South African Isotope Facility (SAIF) in 2017 and it is envisaged that the necessary infrastructure (construction, engineering and technology) will be in place by the end of 2022. The first phase of the SAIF project entails the establishment of a dedicated radioisotope facility that will migrate the existing production programme from the SSC to a dedicated 70-MeV cyclotron. 

A cyclone 70 cyclotron was purchased from IBA RadioPharma Solutions in Belgium. The machine has dual beam extraction that allows for the irradiation of four target end-stations simultaneously. StefanuttiStocks was awarded the contract for the building and various local engineering companies have been contracted to develop some of the end-station infrastructure.

The migration of isotope production to SAIF will result in the SSC becoming available for basic and applied research on a 24/7 basis. The interaction between radiation and biological systems is a research field on its own, and coincidentally, the dangerous properties of radiation are also the properties that can be exploited for medical applications. When radiation of high enough energy hits a cell, it creates breaks in the DNA. In the case of cancer cells, radiation is applied to obtain a high number of breaks in the DNA, in order to kill the cancer cells or slow their growth. 

But radiation has the same effect on healthy cells, where the DNA breaks can eventually result in mutations and genomic instability, which, in turn, could initiate the development of cancer. It is however possible to reduce the impact on healthy cells through selective targeting, which is the purpose of using emerging types of radioisotopes. The methodology entails attaching the radioisotope to an organic molecule which attacks a specific target on a cancer cell. So, where the molecule goes, the isotope goes too. This unique feature allows one to use the radioisotopes to not only treat cancer, but also to detect it. All you need is a “fancy” camera with which to “see” the radiation being emitted from the specific site. Two techniques that are often used are SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography) and PET (positron emission tomography). Both techniques rely on the detection of either one or both photons to create images of the specific site.

This is indeed an exciting juncture, where iThemba LABS is able to reflect on how the knowledge and technological progress provided by accelerator-based sciences can best be used to benefit society,” says Dr Faïҫal Azaïez, Managing Director at NRF-iThemba LABS. 

The increased availability of the SSC resulting from the establishment of the new radioisotope facility will not only allow for a dedicated focus on radiation biophysics, but also for the renewal of iThemba LABS as a research facility in subatomic physics. The main focus will be on the exploration of isotopes that have been produced, and are still being produced, in stars like our Sun to provide insights into the mechanisms of their production. This will start by building LERIB (Low Energy Rare Ion Beams) as part of phase 1 of the SAIF-project. 

The expanded research agenda through the introduction of LERIB will place the facility at the forefront of research and allow the South African and African research community to respond to the national imperatives of energy sustainability, bio-economy, material science, and astronomy while still pursuing new and exciting fields of sub-atomic research. It is furthermore envisaged that these developments will assist in positioning iThemba LABS as a hub of vibrant research, human capital development, and collaboration for nuclear sciences, technologies and application that brings together South African universities, research institutions and international counterparts. 

These developments are needed to position the NRF as an organisation that impacts lives not only in South Africa but on the African continent as a whole, by advancing knowledge and developing the needed skills to catapult us into the knowledge economy. 

For more information, write to: [email protected]

Or visit the website: https://www.tlabs.ac.za