Nuclear meds can cure cancer, and it's nothing to be scared of - SA Nuclear Energy Corporation

2018-11-08 08:42
Nuclear. (file)

Nuclear. (file)

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Nuclear medicine is safe and, above all, hugely effective in the treatment of cancer.

This according to the CEO of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (Necsa), Phumzile Tshelane.

Speaking at a press conference in Rosebank on Wednesday, Tshelane said nuclear technology not only helps with quicker diagnosis of cancer, but can be used in treatment as well.  

"But accessibility is an issue, much bigger than we can imagine," Tshelane said.

This is because of three reasons.

"Firstly, the undergraduate degree programme [for doctors] doesn't include nuclear medication, this is only introduced at postgraduate level.

"Doctors tend to be conservative - and we want them to be. They will not give you something that has not been taught to them.

"Also, the number of oncology units are few in South Africa. All the private hospitals use nuclear medicine, but public hospitals don't - only the academic hospitals do. We are constrained by infrastructure."

READ: What on earth is nuclear medicine?

This is largely because of the costs associated with nuclear medical applications.

"It has a high specificity - they treat exactly where it hurts. It's not cheap, there is a cost.

"It's not going to be an overnight success," Tshelane said.

Through its subsidiary, NTP Radioisotopes, Necsa is a global supplier of radiopharmaceuticals and radiochemicals for use in nuclear medicine, Tshelane said.

Its products are used for the diagnosis and treatment of various cancers and tumours, using nuclear imaging technology.

Nuclear imaging is the "inside-out version" of X-rays, in that it involves radiation emitted from within a patient's body. X-rays emit radiation into the body.

Radioisotopes, from which nuclear medicine is made, are produced in nuclear research reactor and particle accelerator facilities.

According to Necsa, it operates both these facilities and is looking to expand its capacity.

"We generate the isotopes and we use the radio-labelling, then we do the trials.

"This is to ensure the knowledge is not just with wise men at Pelindaba - it is to train young people to ensure we have a future in this type of work," Tshelane said.

Dr Kelvin Kemm, chairperson of Necsa, said Necsa was older than any nuclear company in the world.

"We know what we're doing.

"We are now considered the leading nuclear medicine company in the world," Kemm said.

According to Kemm, Necsa's medical technology saves a person's life every three minutes and is used in 60 countries.

"Last year, we had a R1.4bn turnover for nuclear meds."

Kemm said there was a general fear of nuclear among the public and GPs.

"Nuclear scientists have been really poor in informing the public. There is a massive misunderstanding."

'Nuclear is safe'

But it is safe and effective, Kemm said.

"We have moved from diagnostics to treatment - we can actually cure patients.

"Patients have been given months to live, and a year later they're cured - it's astounding."

Necsa was founded in 1948, shortly after World War 2.

During the war, the US approached the Smuts government for uranium to be exported. This uranium was ultimately used in the nuclear bombs the US dropped on Japan in 1945.

This, as well as nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl, created a public perception that nuclear products are dangerous.

Nothing could be further from the truth, Kemm said.

Referring to the earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima in Japan in 2011, Kemm said "not a single person was injured because of radiation", despite damage to an old nuclear reactor.

Necsa now wants to double its production output. "Why not dream big?" asked Kemm.

"We are looking at doubling the production, so we needed to double the patients as well."

The problem is that the patients are there, but the facilities are not.

"We need more centres; patients have to come to Pretoria or Durban to be treated."

Kemm said the shutdown of the NTP Radioisotopes plant, which produces vital supplies of nuclear medicine and radiation-based products, in June, was "temporary".

READ: No 'breakdown in safety culture' at Necsa

Tshelane said NTP was still producing medicine and that the National Nuclear Regulator would decide when to reopen it, which would be "soon".

'Back to business in two weeks'

"We are continually engaging with government and Treasury for approvals to stop those delays. We expect we will be producing in the next two weeks," Tshelane said.

NTP has been facing several difficulties. In November last year, it was shuttered by the nuclear regulator after faulty calibrations in an instrument for analysing hydrogen levels.

It began its operations in March this year before being shut down in June after a dangerous spike in hydrogen gas levels was detected.

Kemm said the closure was owing to "paper irregularities" and was being dealt with. "No one was in danger," he said. 

Losses had been severe, though. Tshelane said NTP had lost "just over half of total revenue – the impact would be 50% of production".

While 2017 financial targets had been met, 2018 targets were "in doubt to be met unless we recover our customers and capture other markets going forward", Tshelane said. 

This video by Buzz Fit explains what nuclear medicine is: 

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