A medical cyclotron project, designed to cater to specialised needs in the medical field, gets under way in Kolkata.
THE plans of the Department of Atomic Energy's (DAE) Kolkata-based research centre, the Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre (VECC), to set up and operate a Rs.31.03-crore medical cyclotron, are set to become a reality. West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee laid the foundation stone of the Cyclone 30 project on October 4. Development of the project site is under way.
The total project cost is Rs.58.54 crores. The Belgium government has promised the Indian government a soft loan of Rs.13.86 crores and the Belgium-based Ion Beam Application (IBA) has offered an unguaranteed buyer's credit of Rs.17.17 crores. IBA, which incidentally controls 70 per cent of the global market for cyclotron, will be providing the parts of the medical cyclotron, which will be re-assembled by the VECC. The DAE will provide Rs.27.15 crores. The West Bengal government has donated 5.2 acres of prime land for the project, which is expected to become operational by 2005.
The medical cyclotron operates on the same principle of the ordinary cyclotron, but is more compact and rugged and essentially caters to certain highly specialised needs in the medical field. As in a general cyclotron, there is a large magnet and a set of D-shaped metal electrodes called "dees". An electrical field produced between the dees, provides energy to the particles when they pass through it. As the energy of the particles increases, the curvature of the circular path they move in also increases. The particles then come back to the dee and get accelerated again. All the while the magnetic field keeps rotating them in a circular path. When the particles get to the periphery of the magnet, they get the maximum energy. The particles are then extracted out of the machine and transported to the target from where radio isotopes are produced. For example, if copper is the target, then the energy particles transported to it bombard it and form gallium. The gallium is removed from the target through a process of chemical separation, and a compound is made that can be used in the treatment of patients. This cyclotron runs on 350 micro ampere and is rugged enough to run non-stop.
The automation of Cyclone 30 has been designed to be user-friendly, flexible and reliable. The operations of the cyclotron are fully automatic. Extensive help from the system is also provided so that non-specialists with the minimum of training can run the machine. There is provision for the machine to start the beams by itself and run overnight to produce isotopes required during the day.
The project has been going off and on for more than a decade now. Initially, the medical cyclotron was conceived as an industrial venture. It was proposed to be undertaken by West Bengal Radio Pharmaceutical Ltd, a joint venture formed by, among others, the DAE, the Department of Science and Technology (DST), and the Department of Non-Conventional Energy Sources of the Government of West Bengal. After the big industrial houses rejected the proposal for participation in the project, the IBA was approached.
According to Bikash Sinha, Director of the VECC and the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, the IBA refused to be a partner in the project after showing initial interest possibly because the Government of India, through the DAE, would be a strong participant in the venture.
The VECC then took up the matter with the DAE. After extensive discussions it was concluded that initially the project may not be financially viable. Thus the plan to make Cyclone 30 a totally corporate venture was abandoned. It was decided to concentrate on research and development and also produce radio isotopes. Now the corporate structure of the project has been abandoned and the IBA will extend help by providing a loan and supplying cyclotron parts.
"An important research and development work that can be carried out through the medical cyclotron is the study of the effect of radiation on materials like steel and eventually evolve radiation-resistant materials. Through research we may even be able to develop new materials," said Rakesh K. Bhandari, Associate Director, VECC. "Although initially, the activities will be more in the field of research and development, as time passes, we hope the commercial aspect of the operations will gradually increase," said Bikash Sinha.
The commercial aspects would include the production of radio pharmaceuticals and their sale to various hospitals by the Board of Radiation and Isotope Technology under the DAE. Bikash Sinha said that VECC also intended to provide radio isotopes at subsidised rates in order to make medical care affordable to common people.
Radio isotopes such as Thallium 201 (which is required to produce thallium chloride, a chemical that is needed in hospitals that treat heart patients) have to be imported and are expensive. "Gallium 67, which is made in England, has a life span of only 72 hours. At least 15 hours would elapse since its production before it reaches India. By then half of its activities are lost, but we still have to pay the full cost. With a medical cyclotron in the country, the need for Gallium 67 would be met, and the cost of medicines would also be much lower," Rakesh K. Bhandari said. Fluorine 18 and Carbon 14 (which are used to treat certain kinds of tumours), Sodium 22 and Cobalt 57, and most important, Palladium 103, considered a successful cure for prostate cancer, will become available in India once Cyclone 30 is installed. The Palladium 103 is put in small ampules and planted inside the prostate, where it stays until the cancer cells are destroyed. This treatment is called Brachy therapy.
"It is at VECC that the best expertise in cyclotrons in the country exists. We have been operating the present cyclotron for more than 25 years, and we are confident that should anything go wrong with the medical cyclotron, we will be able to fix it," Bikash Sinha said.