Group warns of severe shortage of medical isotopes

* Group predicts many patients will not get needed tests

* Closed Dutch reactor adds to shortage

CHICAGO, March 18 (Reuters) - U.S. imaging experts warned of significant disruptions in the supply of a medical isotope used in scores of diagnostic tests in the coming weeks as a key nuclear reactor goes out of service for extended repairs.

The Society of Nuclear Imaging said on Thursday between March 21 and April 11 the medical community will experience “one of the most significant disruptions ever” in the supply of the medical isotope Technetium 99m, used in more than 14 million nuclear medicine tests in the United States each year.

“The problem is we’ve got two reactors off line for substantial issues. One in Canada and one in The Netherlands,” said Robert Atcher, who chairs the Medical Isotope Task Force of the Society of Nuclear Medicine, whose members include doctors and nuclear medicine technicians.

The Dutch reactor closed late last month for a six-month period of planned maintenance, and Atcher said the remaining reactors in Belgium, France and South Africa are not producing enough radioactive material to make up the difference.

The shortfall means tens of thousands of patients per day in the United States will not receive the nuclear medicine or molecular imaging tests they need to diagnose, stage, monitor or treat their cancer, heart or brain disease, Atcher said.

In many cases, doctors will need to switch to other, less desirable tests, he said.

Technetium-99, a radioactive byproduct of MO-99, has a half life of just six hours, making it impossible to stockpile.

Last month, Dublin, Ireland-based health products provider Covidien COV.N cut a deal with the Institute of Atomic Energy in Poland to help shore up supply of the nuclear material, which is made using highly enriched uranium.

But Atcher said that material is not yet available and when it does become available, it will probably not supply enough MO-99 to make a significant difference in global demand.

Covidien and privately held Lantheus Medical Imaging of North Billerica, Massachusetts, are the two major U.S. suppliers. They supply medical isotopes to Cardinal Health Inc CAH.N, which runs nearly 160 nuclear pharmacies that use the generators to process the isotopes into injectable form.