Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

iThemba LABS, a world leader in the production of radio isotopes used for the diagnosis and treatment of tumours, is a step closer to a major overhaul of its ageing infrastructure, thanks to an extra R167.9m allocation from the Treasury, announced in the medium-term budget policy statement last week.

The funds have been added to its budget for the 2018/19 financial year.

iThemba LABS is a national facility that that houses a 33-year-old 200 MeV cyclotron, used for research and the production of medical isotopes.

iThemba is a world leader in accelerator-based production of radio-isotopes with a long half-life, such as gallium and iodine, which are used for the diagnosis and treatment of tumours. These products are used locally, as well as exported. The facility also contributes to nuclear research, providing a site for research and training.

The new money is the first tranche of funding needed for the acquisition of a new 70 MeV cyclotron, which will be dedicated solely to the production of medical isotopes, said iThemba LABS director Faiçal Azaiez. This is the first phase of an ambitious project that will ultimately result in the establishment of the SA Isotope Facility (SAIF). Phase one is expected to cost R580m over five years.

Once up and running, the revenue generated from the sale of medical isotopes will be used to fund the second phase of the project, which will entail the acquisition of another new accelerator dedicated to training and research, said Azaiez. Phase two is expected to cost R820m, according to the department of science and technology.

The department had supported the National Research Foundation (NRF)’s application to the Treasury for extra funding for iThemba LABS because the facility’s aging infrastructure posed a critical risk to most of its research activities and the radioisotope production programme, said its deputy director-general for research and development, Thomas Auf der Heyde. The NRF is the custodian of national research facilities such as iThemba LABS.

“iThemba LABS has the critical mass of skills and institutional knowledge to support this endeavour,” said Auf der Heyde.