BELOIT — Two electron beam accelerators, each valued at about $5 million, were delivered to Beloit’s NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes facility Tuesday, and the company expects to be producing radioisotopes for shipment to customers in January of 2023.
The delivery of the accelerators marked the end of a 5,700-mile journey as the high-tech equipment was shipped from Belgium. The 10-by-11-foot, 24-ton accelerators will be used in producing Molybdenum-99 (Mo-99), which is the most widely used medical imaging radioisotope used in diagnostic procedures for cancer and heart patients.
Stephen Merrick, president and chief executive officer of NorthStar, said it was a very exciting day for the company as it moves closer to producing radioisotopes in Beloit.
Although there is no current production of radioisotopes at the Beloit facility, the company works with nuclear reactor facility in Columbia, Missouri to produce radioisotopes. The Beloit facility does handle processing work. The Beloit facility employs 150 people and the company employs a total of 230 people between its sites in Beloit, Madison and Missouri.
Merrick said once the Beloit facility is up an running, NorthStar will continue to produce isotopes in Missouri.
“With two production centers, it will give our clients a reliable supply of product,” Merrick said.
The Beloit facility now will start the job of installing and testing the accelerators. There also will be the matter of approval from the FDA and other agencies before the company can start shipping radioisotopes to clients.
The radioisotope production process begins with discs about the size of a quarter, Merrick said. The accelerators fire beams from two different angles at the discs. He said the power of the beams from the accelerators have the power of about 125 microwaves. The discs are helium cooled and then they go through a process of breaking them down to a liquid form. After going through sterilization and quality control procedures, the liquid solution is shipped to customers.
NorthStar currently is the only domestic supplier of Mo-99 in the United States. That is important to Ella Armstrong, a nuclear pharmacist with RLS in West Milwaukee.
She said her company relies on radioisotopes from other countries and having a production facility in the United States, especially in Wisconsin, is an important accomplishment.
She said there have been times when accelerators in Canada, South Africa and other countries have gone down, causing an interruption of supply in radioisotopes.
“There have been times the suppliers have been down for 18 months. Also, not everyone is licensed to ship the product to the United States,” she said.
Beloit City Manager Lori Curtis Luther and City Council member Regina Dunkin were happy to see the progress at NorthStar.
“It’s extraordinary to have the only producer of a product of this kind in the United States right here in Beloit,” Luther said.
“It is exciting to have a project of this magnitude in Beloit that is going to save lives,” Dunkin added.
Diane Hendricks, co-founder of ABC Supply and other companies, and a primary investor in the NorthStar project said she was approached about the project about 10 years ago.
“When I was approached as the initial investor, I said only if it is in Beloit,” she said.
Since then the facility in Beloit, located on a 33-acre site on Gateway Boulevard, has grown, expanding to two buildings. Merrick said there are plans for two more buildings in Beloit with one targeted for production of Mo-99 and the other to produce other products.
Jim Harvey, chief science officer for NorthStar, said the project for him started about a decade ago when his work proved the domestic production or radioisotopes in the U.S. was possible.
“Today truly starts a new chapter—a chapter where we bring an idea to reality in just a few years,” Harvey said.
Construction on the Beloit campus started in 2014 after the company amended its development agreement with the City of Beloit. In February of 2018, NorthStar received its first approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) related to its production process. Since then, the company has received four other federal approvals.