Anyone seen this new book?
Star Phoenix November 3 2001
Cobalt Bomb: A radical medical procedure provided cancer patients with a future
Saskatoon in vanguard of revolutionary cancer treatment that gave birth to high-tech in Canada
In Isotopes and Innovation (McGill-Queen's University Press), Paul Litt, a historian living in Toronto, gives an in-depth look at MDS Nordion, a company that started as the radium sales department of Eldorado Mining and Refining, the Canadian uranium producer that was a key strategic resource for the Allies during the race to build the nuclear bomb, and went on to become the world's leading producer of radioisotopes.
When radium began to be used as a cancer treatment, Eldorado quickly became familiar with the medical marketplace and adept at developing products that could solve clinical problems and, more important, save lives.
Isotopes and Innovation describes how a company capitalized on the byproducts of Canada's unique nuclear research program to attain a commanding international position in extremely specialized and demanding high-tech markets, a saga in which innovative research and enterprising global marketing have brought commercial success and saved countless lives around the world.
A patient immobilized in a plaster cast was wheeled into a concrete-shielded room in the basement of the War Memorial Children's Hospital in London, Ontario. She was placed on a treatment bed under a large metal-clad cylinder. Electric motors clicked into gear to adjust one end of the cylinder over her body, then medical personnel exited the room.
Outside, a technician set an electric clock dial and turned an ignition switch. With a whoosh of compressed air, a port in the cylinder opened and a powerful dose of radiation penetrated deep into the patient's body, ionizing cancerous cells.
It was Oct. 27, 1951. A Canadian invention, the cobalt bomb, had made its world debut.
Remarkably, the machine in London was not the only cobalt bomb to appear in Canada that fall. In Saskatoon, University Hospital treated a patient with a similar machine a few days later. Canada had two cobalt bombs: no other country was close to producing anything similar.
The debut of the cobalt bomb was publicized widely. "Canadian high-tech" had the same sort of newsworthiness as "man bites dog." Canadians had been promised better living through atomic science, but the assumption was that innovations would be spun off by the Americans' massive nuclear research establishment, not from their own government's research.
What was it that gave Canada a competitive advantage in this high-tech branch of cancer therapy? The answer was a radioactive isotope, cobalt-60. A variant form of the cobalt element that had 60 neutrons in its nucleus rather than the usual fifty-nine, cobalt-60 was a new and unique Canadian resource.
Canada developed this resource because it had provided a refuge for European atomic scientists during the Second World War. They continued their research under the auspices of the federal government's National Research Council, laying the groundwork for a Canadian nuclear program that differed significantly from that of the Americans.
Instead of using graphite to control, or "moderate," nuclear reactions in a reactor, the Canadian program used heavy water.
A heavy water reactor, NRX (for National Research Experimental) went into service at the Canadian nuclear research facility at Chalk River in 1947. It proved to be an unparalleled isotope production facility.
Among the various isotopes produced experimentally in NRX, scientists identified cobalt-60 as a radiation source eminently suitable for cancer therapy. Cobalt-60 offered many advantages over existing therapeutic radiation sources.
Radium, a natural radioactive substance refined from uranium ore, was effective when placed right beside cancerous tissue. But deep-seated tumours had to be treated by teletherapy, a technique that directed radiation into the body from an external source.
Scientists tried building "radium bombs" for teletherapy, but radium radiation was too weak for the job. High-voltage radiation equipment like X-ray machines could do the trick, but they were expensive, balky and limited in use to a few cancer centres that had the technical expertise required to maintain and operate them. Now Canada had a stronger, simpler source of radiation.
Word of cobalt-60's qualities soon spread in the scientific community. All that was needed to realize its promise was a means of delivering its radiation in a controlled, calibrated fashion. By 1949 there were two projects under way to build a "cobalt bomb." One was started in Ottawa by the radium sales department of Eldorado Mining and Refining (1944) Ltd, a Crown Corporation that owned and operated Canada's uranium mines. The Saskatchewan Cancer Institute launched another at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, a leading centre for radiation therapy in Canada.
The two project teams faced similar challenges. They had to design a machine that would apply radiation effectively to patients, but otherwise contain it. The solution in both cases was a container that shielded the cobalt-60 radiation source within a cocoon of lead and released it via an elaborate shutter system.
Both prototypes were complete by the summer of 1951. Several months passed as they were tested and concrete-shielded treatment rooms constructed in London and Saskatoon. The Eldorado cobalt bomb treated its first patient on Oct. 27, the Saskatchewan machine on Nov. 8.
Once its machine was proven effective, Eldorado set up a manufacturing facility in Ottawa. It soon had orders for its cobalt-bomb from hospitals around the world.
The cobalt bomb revolutionized radiation oncology by making effective radiation therapy widely available at the community level.
The cure rate for cancer of the cervix, to give just one example, soon climbed from 25 per cent to 75 per cent. In one fell swoop teletherapy was transformed from an esoteric technique that doctors experimented with at teaching hospitals into a standard treatment available at any well-equipped cancer clinic.
The cobalt bomb was the grand-daddy of all the radiation therapy machines found in modern cancer facilities. It also offers a lesson for our times on the connections between original research and a strong economy.
Economists warn Canadians that we are too dependent on our low dollar for competitive advantage, and that lasting economic success comes instead from developing unique products and services. The invention of the cobalt bomb offers a salutary case study of the long-term benefits of such an approach.
The NRX reactor, a product of an independent Canadian program of scientific research, was unique in its ability to produce large quantities of highly radioactive cobalt-60, the resource that made the cobalt bomb a viable technology. As a result, Canada gained a long-term competitive advantage in a high-tech field.
Atomic Energy Canada Limited, the Crown Corporation that took over Eldorado's cobalt bomb division, exploited this advantage to establish global market dominance in the radiation therapy business. Privatized by the Mulroney government and renamed MDS Nordion in the 1980s, the Kanata-based company remains a world leader in medical applications of isotopes. An investment in research made over half a century ago has been repaid many times over, and continues to pay dividends today.
Excerpt from Paul Litt's latest book, Isotopes and Innovation, MDS Nordion's first 50 Years (McGill-Queen's University Press for MDS Nordion, 2000).
© Copyright 2001 Saskatoon StarPhoenix