McMaster University’s Medical Isotope Supply Chain Team is comprised of more than a dozen staff members who are involved with producing, processing, and distributing medical isotopes generated at the McMaster Nuclear Reactor. Their work has established McMaster as the world’s leading supplier of iodine-125, a medical isotope that is the standard of care for prostate cancer treatment, and the only North American producer of QuiremSpheres, a new medical isotope-based technology used for personalized liver cancer care.
The President’s Awards for Outstanding Service recognize employees who have made an outstanding contribution to the mission of McMaster University in the previous year. The Medical Isotope Supply Chain Team was nominated for their work in 2020 – a year that saw them face and overcome unprecedented challenges.
With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Team had to implement radical changes in their work practices to ensure that new health and safety standards could be maintained. With a reduced staff complement on each shift to enable distancing and eliminate personnel cross-over, the responsibility for producing, processing, quality testing, and shipping highly radioactive materials – while operating a nuclear reactor – fell to fewer Team members. Despite these challenging conditions, the Team matched their highest ever annual output, providing treatments for more than 70,000 cancer patients worldwide.
Disruptions to international travel created additional challenges for the Team, particularly around QuiremSpheres, a highly perishable product that has to get from McMaster to a laboratory in The Netherlands, and then to a hospital operating room in only 60 hours. With daily passenger flights to Amsterdam cancelled, the Team began to time the production of each QuiremSpheres patient dose to align with occasional passenger or cargo flights to other European cities. Similarly, supply routes to China – a major consumer of iodine-125 – were decimated, forcing the Team to route shipments to Beijing weeks in advance, despite a constantly changing flight schedule.
Throughout 2020, the Team faced unprecedented variability in demand for medical isotopes, as different regions of the world first curtailed cancer treatments as the pandemic struck, then increased their treatment schedules beyond any historical precedent. The Team worked tirelessly to continually adapt to, and meet, this demand. With only a skeleton staff present, the Team supported validation experiments and commissioning testing of new medical isotope production equipment, which enabled them to increase McMaster’s QuiremSpheres production capacity by 150%. Working two shifts five, six, and even seven days a week, the Team ensured that the Covid-19 pandemic did not interrupt the supply of life-saving medical isotopes to cancer patients around the world.
The Team’s efforts to keep the world supplied with essential medicines through the pandemic have solidified McMaster’s reputation as a Canadian leader in medical isotope research, development, and translation. Their work has received news coverage from the Reuters news service and the Toronto Star, and has garnered attention from government agencies, not-for-profits, and private sector companies. The McMaster experience in this space has sparked new dialogue around the security of Canada’s medical isotope supply chain at the national level, while also igniting new research initiatives with partners both on and off the McMaster campus.
Director of Nuclear Operations, Chris Heysel praised the award winners and the larger Nuclear Operations team in general, “I am so proud of the winners of this prestigious award. Their hard work and dedication throughout these unprecedented times had a positive impact on tens of thousands of lives. Also, my thanks and congratulations to all of our Nuclear Operations staff, every one of whom played an important supporting role in realizing this amazing achievement!”
More information about this year’s President’s Awards winners and nominees can be found at President’s Awards for Outstanding Service – Human Resources (mcmaster.ca)