Ambitious step in the battle against cancer
PanTera offers access to the ’rarest drug on earth’
In 2022, SCK CEN celebrated the birth of PanTera. The spin-off from SCK CEN and IBA will enhance Belgium as an internationally leading country in nuclear medicine. PanTera will supply researchers and pharmaceutical companies with actinium-225 of pharmaceutical quality at a large scale. The start-up aims to make the first steps towards its innovative production facility as early as 2024.
In April 2022, IBA – the world-leader in particle acceleration technology – and SCK CEN presented their joint venture, which was officially named PanTera in September 2022. 'After years of joint research, both Boards of Directors gave the green light for setting up an independent body,' says Pascal De Langhe, Director of Business Development at SCK CEN. 'The PanTera team demonstrated its razor-sharp technical and economic feasibility. PanTera has all the assets it needs to offer some new prospects for cancer patients.'
The aim of PanTera is clear: to set up large-scale and state-of-the-art production for the worldwide needs of the radioisotope actinium-225 (225Ac). This production will commence from 2027-2028. Over the course of 2024, the spin-off expects to be able to put the first few contractors to work for a brand-new building. After two years, it will be able to install the production line there. In the meantime, PanTera will be working hard to be able to supply actinium-225 on a small scale before then – by early 2024 – as well. For example, the spin-off aims to support clinical studies. This research work is the framework for approval to bring the medicines to market.
'The preparation for our production route has been rounded off in terms of planning and the technical side,' says Sven Van den Berghe, CEO of PanTera, who has also racked up 25 years' experience at SCK CEN. 'We're putting the finishing touches to our permit application at the moment and the initial steps for drawing in additional funding have been taken. The contribution by IBA and SCK CEN to our establishment was largely material and intellectual. IBA is supplying a Rhodotron particle accelerator. Among other things, SCK CEN is offering the usage rights to radium-226 (226Ra) – the raw material for making actinium-225. We are facing some unavoidable challenges, but the route has been sounded out. I'm not expecting any further show-stoppers on the technical front either.'
Experts view actinium-225 as one of the most promising alpha emitters in the battle against cancer. Sven Van den Berghe: 'It's the only alpha isotope that the major pharma players are currently getting behind. The first isotope to make a big name for itself was lutetium-177 (177Lu) (see also 'BR2 indispensable to diagnostics and therapy' - Ed.). Players like Bayer, Novartis and Johnson & Johnson are now committing to actinium-225 as it’s even more potent successor. Lutetium-177 emits one electron; actinium-225, a helium nucleus (alpha particle). For comparison: the first radioisotope works like a pistol, while the other like a bazooka. There are dozens of clinical studies ongoing or being launched. For now, progress in the clinical studies with patients has been cumbersome, simply because there is not enough actinium-225 available. But we'll be helping to resolve that bottleneck soon.'
Many types of cancer
The medical research into Targeted Radio Therapy (TRT) with actinium-225 further builds upon that for other radioisotopes, such as lutetium-177. Laboratories are focusing on a range of molecules that allow for sending the radioisotopes towards various different kinds of cancer. At the moment, more than 15 cancers are being examined already. Pascal De Langhe: 'The medical challenge is how you choose the best molecule to attach your radioisotope to. How can you get as close as you can to the specific cells you want to irradiate? Research is presently underway into prostate, lung, bowel, breast, pancreas, blood, brain and kidney cancer. We also expect that, for every application of lutetium-177, a more powerful variant with actinium-225 will come about. Doctors can then propose the most suitable variant per individual patient or switch to actinium-225, if the lutetium-177 treatment is not having the desired effect.
Ambition through partnership
SCK CEN's decision to establish another independent spin-off for the first time in years shows how great the potential is deemed to be. Pascal De Langhe: 'During the joint venture agreement between SCK CEN and IBA that preceded PanTera, we could already feel the huge opportunities. By combining the SCK CEN world, which has been producing radioisotopes in the BR2 research reactor for many years, with IBA's one about particle accelerators and GMP, we turned one plus one into so much more than two. Both organisations' expertise complement one another perfectly. This helped lead to some unique solutions within the unexplored territory of radium-based medical isotope production based on photo-nuclear reactions.'
Belgian circular innovation
One of PanTera's unrivalled assets is that SCK CEN may well possess the largest and purest supply of radium-226 in the world. 'Our actinium-225 production is a seamless fit for the concept of a circular economy,' says Sven Van den Berghe. 'Our basic raw material – radium-226 – had been languishing for a long time and was considered 'an awkward legacy from the past.' Thanks to our technology, we're converting radioactive remnants into a product that's going to save the lives of cancer patients. Think about it: doesn't that make this story of Belgian nuclear innovation even more fantastic?'