New SCK CEN production facility helps more cancer patients
The foundation stone has been laid for more radioisotopes and thus more life-saving care
Starting in 2026, the nuclear research centre SCK CEN will commission a brand-new production facility for therapeutic radioisotopes. This facility, called CRF, represents a vital step forward in the fight against cancer. Today the foundation stone was symbolically laid - in the presence of patient Francis Ligot, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides, and Belgian Minister for Energy Tinne Van der Straeten.
The forecasts are clear. Without decisive action, cancer will most likely become the leading cause of death in Europe by 2036. This makes early diagnoses and targeted treatments increasingly critical. And this urgent need is echoed in Mol, Belgium. The nuclear research centre SCK CEN wants to give more patients access to life-saving care and is realising this ambition with the construction of the Centralized Radiochemical Facility (CRF). "This brand new production facility means an essential step forward in the fight against cancer," explains Koen Hasaers, Director of Nuclear Medical Applications at SCK CEN. "Therapeutic radioisotopes are a key ingredient of Targeted Radionuclide Therapy (TRT) - or targeted, internal radiotherapy. With our CRF facility, we will produce that key ingredient and ensure its reliable and sustainable supply for cancer patients." A feature of that treatment is that patients experience fewer side effects and maintain a better quality of life.
Francis Ligot acknowledges this. He has already undergone two treatments with lutetium-177. The radioisotope is already being used to treat prostate cancer and neuroendocrine tumours. "Would I do it again, if I could? Without hesitation! It was the most effective treatment. Unfortunately, my battle with cancer continues but with this treatment, I was able to achieve one of my greatest victories. It gave me a life bonus of several years: a bonus in which I experienced no side effects and could live an almost normal life," Francis Ligot said. Today, the nuclear research centre SCK CEN gave him the honour of laying the foundation stone for the production facility.
So, construction has begun and production will start in 2026. The production facility will focus on lutetium-177. Starting in 2026, the nuclear research centre SCK CEN will gradually build toward lutetium production for 15,000 patients in the short term and 100,000 patients in the long term. The facility has also been designed to process promising next-generation isotopes which may allow cancers to be treated even more effectively.
The laying of the foundation stone of the CRF building promises hope, progress and a commitment to a healthier future, both at local and European level. Consequently, the project enjoys political support. Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, endorses the importance of this facility. “With Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, a central pillar of the European Health Union, improving cancer prevention, treatment and care is now at the top of the political agenda in the EU. To achieve this, the development of effective treatments that can save lives and improve the quality of lives of patients are crucial. The Belgian Nuclear Research Centre is an important partner in this effort. I am looking forward to working closely with the Belgian Presidency of the Council for the benefits of patients and their families in the EU.”
Tinne Van der Straeten, Minister for Energy, is also delighted with this milestone. “Belgium is a global player in the fight against cancer, thanks in part to the production of medical radioisotopes here in Mol. Our country is determined to further contribute to a healthy Europe. The research centre SCK CEN received financial support from the Belgian Recovery and Resilience Plan (RRF) to enable research and development into a new production line. We are proud that this research has led to this realisation and that Belgium will soon make an even bigger difference in the fight against cancer.”
From raw material to drug
Specifically, what will CRF mean in terms of cancer control? Medical radioisotopes do not occur in nature; they have to go through an entire production process. The raw material is first irradiated in SCK CEN's BR2 research reactor. Irradiation transforms a small part of the raw material into a medical radioisotope. At that moment, however, the desired radioisotope is still swimming among the remaining raw material and other isotopes. "With radiochemical techniques, we isolate the radioisotope we need for cancer treatment. This radiochemical work will be performed in CRF facility," explains Koen Hasaers (SCK CEN). After CRF, the first key ingredient is ready to be coupled with a molecule in a hospital or at a radiopharmaceutical facility. He concludes, "CRF thus represents the crucial step between the production of medical radioisotopes and their use in cancer treatments."
Belgian front against cancer
The new production facility will be on the grounds of the nuclear research centre SCK CEN in Mol, Belgium. However, the production is part of a public/public partnership with the National Institute for Radio Elements (IRE). The IRE will play a crucial role in commercialisation thanks to its trust relationships with hospitals and healthcare professionals and its quickness in delivering radioisotopes to patients. The Belgian institute in Fleurus has more than 50 years of experience in just-in-time distribution of medical radioisotopes around the world, for some 2,500 shipments a year.
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