Columbia becomes sole U.S. supplier of isotope for thyroid cancer treatment

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COLUMBIA - The University of Missouri Research Reactor, also known as MURR, has created the first domestic supply of Iodine-131 (I-131) in the United States since the 1980s.

I-131 is a radioisotope used for diagnosing and treating thyroid cancer and hyperthyroidism.

“I-131 is the active ingredient that’s at the heart of a treatment used for thyroid cancer," said the MURR Associate Director, Ken Brooks. "One of the great things about it is that its effective. It’s kind of been the go-to treatment for thyroid cancer since the 1950’s.”

MURR shipped its first batch of I-131 this week, making it the only supplier in the country. According to Brooks, prior to this week, the closest supplier to the states was in Canada.

According to the National Cancer Institute, about 54,000 patients a year are diagnosed with thyroid cancer, with an estimated 2,060 estimated deaths a year. 

University of Missouri graduate Jana Blasko was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in December 2016.

Blasko under went surgery to remove the lump in her neck shortly after her diagnosis before starting her I-131 radiation treatment.

“I would say the biggest struggle for the treatment was the insurance coverage of it." said Blasko. "They didn’t necessarily cover all of it or they covered the shots you get leading up to it to boost your thyroid levels. It was kind of the pieces they would cover and it’s obviously a really really expensive treatment.”

According to Blasko, the treatment cost her around $2,000. 

The treatment has a shelf life of about two weeks which makes distribution tough, as they cannot ship mass amounts out at a time.

“One of the benefits of producing I-131 here at the MU Research Reactor is our central geography in the U.S.," said Brooks. "So we can distribute this short shelf life drug material to anywhere in the U.S. quickly."

I-131 currently ships out of St. Louis and Kansas City airports. 

The isotope is one of several MURR creates to help in the medical field. The reactor has been a crucial component to research at the university for more than 50 year.  

“One of the benefits of generating this isotope is it does generate revenue and here at the University Research Reactor we generate revenue to do what?" said Brooks. "To fund additional research.”