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Into the fray: New president of nuclear medicine group vows to advance its national role

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By Roger Snodgrass

The newly installed president of the Society of Nuclear Medicine (SNM) said a recent decision by the Department of Energy to dispose of its inventory of uranium-233 was an issue for the organization and for himself.

“It affects my research personally,” said Robert W. Atcher, a White Rock resident who assumed the office of president Sunday at the society’s annual meeting in New Orleans.

“It’s as if they were mining coal and knew there were diamonds in it, but instead of trying to get the diamonds out, they threw the coal away,” Atcher said in a telephone interview Monday.

The inspector general of the Energy Department came to a similar conclusion in a special report earlier this month.

“Should the Department elect to proceed as planned, it may dispose of a national resource that is irreplaceable,” Inspector General Gregory H. Friedman wrote in a covering memorandum to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman.

Atcher said the problem arose when custodianship of DOE’s uranium-233 changed into the hands of the department’s Environment Management program.

“They wanted to dispose of it and have it finished,” he said. “But it’s a valuable resource and we would not be happy to have that material go away.”

A DOE program has produced thorium-229 isotopes from the uranium-233, which in turn has been used to create actinium-225 and bisimuth-213. Both isotopes are extremely rare and have short half-lives and other characteristics that make them suitable for clinical trials and cancer research.

Phase II clinical trials currently use the derivative isotopes for treatment of acute myeloid leukemia, Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, bone marrow transplants, AIDS, and cancers of the lungs, pancreas and kidneys.

The department countered that the disposition strategy was directed by Congress and alternatives would have safety impacts at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, unless Congress changes its mandate and provides appropriate resources.

A National Academy of Sciences report in September 2007 affirmed the “need to focus research on development of new radionuclide production facilities and technologies as well as the development and use of targeted radionuclide therapeutics that will allow cancer treatments to be tailored for individual patients,” the IG report noted.

DOE has proposed in next year’s budget now under consideration to transfer the isotope program to the Office of Science. But without the existing inventory, the program would have to develop alternative production methods, which would delay future research.

Preserving and expanding funding for research and development is one of Atcher’s priorities, he said during the convention, where 4,000 of the society’s 16,000 members are meeting, along with 2,000 exhibitors.

The society intentionally rotates a scientist into the presidency every four years, Atcher said, because research is a fundamental part of the organization.

Last year, Atcher argued successfully for restoration of a $20 million item for nuclear medical research in the Department of Energy budget. He said he was following the FY ’09 budget closely, which continues the funding, although it is not quite as much.

Of other national issues the society faces, Atcher included regulatory issues and reimbursement.

The society is involved in a long-term process to overcome regulatory hurdles at the Food and Drug Administration, where getting approval for guidelines has been extremely slow.

“We understand that there still has to be serious concerns relative to the safety of those drugs,” he said, “but by the same token, it’s a diagnostic not a therapeutic (drug).”

Diagnostic drugs are taken in much smaller doses, a thousand to a million times less than a pharmacological prescription.

There is also an ongoing debate on an issue much larger than the field of nuclear medicine, having to do with reimbursement caps on medical imaging rates in Medicare and Medicaid. The society has joined with a broad coalition of other medical and imaging groups to revisit the deficit reduction measure.

“We’re close to getting a delay for 18 months,” Atcher said, in order to do a review to demonstrate whether there are lost opportunities to improve health.

SNM represents physicians, technologists and scientists engaged in molecular imaging and nuclear medicine.

Atcher will serve as president until next year’s meting in Toronto. Atcher is the emerging medical team leader at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where his job is to increase interactions with research universities in the state.