Community Matters: Keeping Canada at the forefront of fighting cancer and disease

The Canadian Cancer Society predicts half of Canadians will be diagnosed with cancer at some point during their lifetime.

James Scongack – Canadian Nuclear Isotope Council Chair

Unfortunately, most people will feel cancer’s impact directly, or through a loved one or friend. We all want to do everything we can to better detect and beat cancer, and, thanks to the leadership role of Canada, we are making progress. In fact, Canada’s overall cancer survival rate has increased from about 25 per cent in the 1940s to 60 per cent today. We can keep the flight up against cancer using new technology to improve survival rates.

Strategic investments and innovations have led to better prevention, enhanced screening, earlier diagnosis, more targeted treatments, and, ultimately, fewer cancer cases and deaths. Many forms of modern cancer diagnosis and treatment depend on nuclear isotopes produced right here in Canada. In fact, over 10,000 hospitals worldwide use nuclear isotopes in medicine, and about 90 per cent of the procedures are for diagnosis.

Nuclear isotopes are an important part of Canada’s innovation agenda, and, beyond medicine, the nuclear sector contributes to a wide range of other scientific and economic activities, including energy, human health and safety, material testing, food safety, and even space exploration.

What many Canadians don’t realize is the pioneering role our country has played in this field of fighting cancer. The work done by Canadian scientists helped pave the way for today’s cancer treatment around the globe, saving millions of lives and positioning Canada as a world leader in nuclear medicine.

For example, in the 1950s, nuclear scientists in London, Ontario, revolutionized cancer treatment when they invented the Cobalt-60 Beam Therapy Unit using Cobalt-60, a beta-emitting radioisotope of Cobalt-59. With this invention, the global cure rate for cervical cancer went from 25 per cent to a remarkable 75 per cent. The benefits of Cobalt-60 machines go far beyond the Canadian border as Cobalt-60 radiation therapy has been used around the world to treat cancer patients, and is used in about 70 per cent of the world’s cancer cases treated by radiation.

That’s why a coalition of Canadian science, health care and nuclear sector organizations have launched an organization called the Canadian Nuclear Isotope Council (CNIC), to ensure Canada remains a world leader in the production of life-saving Isotopes by raising awareness, and supporting long-term policies at the domestic and international level. Over 27 leading organizations from Canada and around the world have joined the Council, and this strong team will put forward collective solutions to maintain Canada’s leadership position on the global isotope stage.

Since 1940, Canada has been a world leader in producing isotopes used to save lives through medical imaging, cancer therapy, sterilization and diagnostic development. The demand for a reliable supply of these critical isotopes is growing as advancements in health care continue and jurisdictions seek to secure fair access to diagnostics and treatments for patients, because isotope sterilization is critical to clean hospitals and infection control.

For decades, the world has looked to Canada as a source of health care innovation, and a reliable supply of isotopes to diagnose and treat some of the most serious medical conditions, while also supplying critical sterilization isotopes to keep hospitals and medical facilities clean and safe. Members of the CNIC believe people in Canada and around the world are counting on us to continue playing an important role in the years to come. 

Canada’s nuclear innovations save millions of lives every year in more than 80 countries. By leveraging a strategic national alliance from Canada’s nuclear, health care and academic sectors, effective policies and awareness can be brought to the critical international role we play. The Government of Canada and the bipartisan Standing Committee on Natural Resources recently declared Ontario’s nuclear innovations a success story, recognizing the critical role radioisotopes play in the global community, and stated its intention to work with industry, the health care community and provincial/territorial governments to ensure that the Canadian supply of radioisotopes is brought to the next level. 

A significant percentage of the world’s nuclear isotopes have traditionally come from Canada’s NRU reactor, which reached its end of operational life in March 2018. Members of the Council are advancing new technologies and approaches to replace this capacity using other research and nuclear facilities across Canada. Alternative avenues for isotope production have since been filled by nuclear power reactors such as Bruce Power and Pickering in Ontario, research reactors in universities like McMaster, and other smaller-scale isotope producing options like cyclotrons, which has helped fill some of the gap created by the NRU’s closing. 

Canada’s isotope innovations continue to serve as a model for leadership, using science to find solutions to real world challenges. Our achievements in cancer treatment would not have been possible without the brilliant Canadian scientists and technical experts who designed and built marvels in nuclear engineering. As we celebrate the contributions of innovative Canadian nuclear technology, we are confident we will continue to build on a better tomorrow and a stronger Canada for all of us.