In early June 1972, the world’s most intense proton beam was delivered through nearly a mile of vacuum tanks at the new Los Alamos Meson Physics Facility, now known as the Los Alamos Neutron Science Center, or LANSCE. As the facility has evolved over five decades, that proton beam is now delivered to five state-of-the-art experimental areas, a capability that makes the accelerator on the Pajarito Plateau unique among its peers.
“LANSCE is unique in that many accelerators have just a single mission focus,” said Thom Mason, Laboratory director. “With five areas, we can work on many different types of complicated problems across scientific fields. At LANSCE, our research program in nuclear physics and materials science, as well as our fundamental science and medical isotopes programs, are as essential today as they have ever been.”
Critical supplies of medical isotopes
Starting from the injector system, the proton beam’s first destination, traveling at just over 100 megaelectronvolts, is the Isotope Production Facility, a key facility within the Department of Energy’s Isotope R&D and Production program and part of a tri-lab effort with Brookhaven National Laboratory and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. In April 2020, as facilities shut down in the pandemic, LANSCE started the beam up ahead of its normal run schedule to fill a supply chain gap and deliver critical supplies of the isotopes strontium-82 (Sr-82), used in heart imaging, and germanium-68 (Ge-68), used in cancer diagnostics.
The Isotope Production Facility excels in the basic science and applied engineering needed to produce and purify useful isotopes that can then be produced at scale in the marketplace. In the fight against cancer, recent and current clinical trials are yielding promising results with the short-lived isotope actinium-225, which delivers high-energy radiation to a cancer tumor without greatly affecting the surrounding tissue. The isotope can be chemically modified to target certain cancers — prostate cancer, colorectal cancer, melanoma and others — that produce a distinctive antigen.
“Unfortunately, almost everyone is affected by cancer, themselves or the people they know and love,” said Kirk Rector, Los Alamos point-of-contact for the DOE Isotope Program. “That’s part of what makes the work around actinium-225 for cancer in particular very exciting. The results from clinical trials using actinium-225 to treat even late-stage prostate cancer suggest that it could be a pretty significant way to attack that horrible disease.”
New Los Alamos research indicates that actinium-225 may also be effective against bacteria, especially important in an age of increased antibiotic resistance.