April 20, 2024

Merging computing and robotics technology to modernize radioisotope processing

SIGNATURE: Jared Sagoff

In a new effort to modernize and improve the production of medical isotopes, scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory have embarked on a project that harnesses the power of computer-driven robotic technology. The project aims to increase safety and reproducibility, while reducing costs.

Thanks to new funding from the DOE Office of Science, technologies used to process diagnostic and therapeutic radioisotopes used in cancer treatment will be modernized. They will replace systems based on technologies used since the 1940s.

This project, led by Argonne, is multidisciplinary. It includes scientists and engineers from across the lab, as well as faculty and students from four colleges and universities. The $4 million in funding over a two-year period comes from the Office of Science’s Isotope Research and Advanced Scientific Computing programs.

“Just gaining the ability to handle the sample from across the room means we can safely handle samples up to 10 times more radioactive without requiring the use of hot cells. “This dramatically increases our ability to produce these valuable and necessary isotopes.” — Jerry Nolen, Argonne physicist

The DOE Isotope Program helps fund and direct the research needed to bring important medical isotopes from concept to reliable delivery to end users for preclinical and clinical trials.

For oncologists who are on the front lines in the battle against cancer, these medical radioisotopes represent an indispensable weapon. Its advantage lies in the ability to selectively attack malignant tumors with reduced collateral damage to surrounding healthy tissue.

Preliminary research with some radioisotopes has indicated promising advances in cancer treatment. As a result, in many cases the demand for these emerging isotopes far exceeds the available supply. This limits the rate of progress in the development of these advanced cancer treatments.

Currently, research and production of medical isotopes is carried out in national laboratories and university accelerators. A handful of private companies are also involved.

Scientists painstakingly create these isotopes by irradiating targets composed of enriched stable isotopes. The desired radioisotopes are created through nuclear transmutation. However, a major challenge arises once these radioisotopes are produced on targets. The very small quantities of the useful radioisotopes produced must be chemically separated from the bulk of the target material and impurities.

Radiochemical separation can take one of two routes. One is manual benchtop processing in a “glove box,” but this is fraught with radiation exposure for the researchers involved, limiting the throughput of production batches. The other route involves processing in dedicated, heavily guarded “hot cells.” These cells still use mechanical manipulators from the 1940s. They require quite a bit of maintenance, are expensive, and have limited mechanical capability.

The teleoperated robotic system that Argonne plans to develop with the new funding will introduce a new type of radioisotope processing station. It will feature a “hot box” that optimally combines elements of a hot cell and a glove box, said Argonne nuclear physicist Jerry Nolen.

An immediate goal is to carry out the basic research necessary to take advantage of recent advances in remote or teleoperated operations. These include new robotic technologies, 3D vision technologies, 3D dynamic modeling with high-speed computing, and cost-effective and capable manipulators that enable complex remote processing.

“Very flexible manipulator capabilities are required to carry out the complex operations of radiochemical separations,” said Millicent Firestone, deputy associate director of Argonne’s laboratory and senior scientific advisor for Physical Sciences and Engineering.

“Just gaining the ability to handle the sample from across the room means we can safely handle samples up to 10 times more radioactive without requiring the use of hot cells. “This dramatically increases our ability to produce these valuable and necessary isotopes,” Nolen said.

The new robotic hot box will operate remotely using augmented reality. The user is seated far from the radioactive sample and uses 3D computer vision and immersive visualization technologies to visualize the hot box. Advanced software will also be employed to remotely control specially designed robotic components located in the hot box.

Argonne computer scientist Nicola Ferrier said the technology for augmented reality will likely be based on Omniverse technology developed by US company Nvidia, combined with model optimization for real-time interaction. A commercially available headset will give the remote operator a 3D virtual reality view of the inside of the hot box. Omniverse enables the development of 3D workflows using Universal Scene Description (an open standard).

“Accurate, real-time visualization of remote radiochemical processing in the hot box requires a complex 3D workflow that is integrated with the robotic system,” he said.

Argonne’s Young Soo Park has experience building robotic manipulators. He said the introduction of a radioactive environment adds another level of challenge. “Successfully building and operating this hot box requires a multi-step process to make the augmented reality experience intuitive for the user,” he said. Park directs Argonne’s Robotics and Remote Systems program in the Laboratory’s Applied Materials division.

“This new funding will allow Argonne to modernize its medical isotope infrastructure, bringing cutting-edge solutions to nuclear medicine,” said Kawtar Hafidi, associate director of Argonne’s Physical Sciences and Engineering Laboratory.

According to Nolen, a goal of the project is for Argonne and other DOE facilities to produce consistent amounts of a variety of isotopes. From there, the DOE could sell them to hospitals through its Isotope Program.

This project builds on existing computing and robotics capabilities at Argonne, as well as collaborations with four colleges and universities: Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Morehouse College, and Florida A&M University. This multi-institutional and multidisciplinary team will also involve students and early career scientists and engineers. Emphasis will be placed on increasing the diversity of the technical workforce of the future.

An advisory team has been formed with members from four private companies to help ensure a rapid transition of the technology being developed from the basic research stage to commercial implementation.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. Argonne, the nation’s first national laboratory, conducts cutting-edge basic and applied science research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state, and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership, and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 countries, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The US Department of Energy Office of Science is the largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.

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