The new drug, called Lutathera, is approved to treat some types of pancreatic and gastrointestinal cancers.

For 15 years, scientists at the University of Missouri Research Reactor have been experimenting with the potentially healing properties of radioactive isotope lutetium-77. Now that hard work paid off.

On Jan. 26, the FDA approved a promising cancer drug created from the isotope.

“You can think of this isotope as the active ingredient of the drug,” said reactor Associate Director Ken Brooks.

The reactor, called MURR by those who work there, identified the potential in this isotope, but another company was responsible for creating the delivery mechanism.

The new drug, called Lutathera, is approved to treat some types of pancreatic and gastrointestinal cancers. MU’s reactor is the sole supplier of necessary isotope. The drug itself was developed by Advanced Accelerator Applications. Though Lutathera is on the market now, hospitals must receive appropriate licenses to handle radioactive material before they can administer the drug to patients.

“The drug has been under our development since 2010,” said Rachel Levine, spokeswoman for Advanced Accelerator Applications. The drug’s wholesale price is $47,500 per dose.

Such alliances are important for the researchers at MURR.

“It’s in our DNA to collaborate with other organizations, so this type of public-private partnership is nothing new for us,” said Brooks.

MURR has created isotopes for two other cancer drugs in its 52-year history. The reactor is also the sole producer of the radioisotopes necessary to create Quadrimet, a drug used to treat bone pain associated with cancer, and TheraSphere, for liver cancer. MURR produces weekly batches of isotopes to support both drugs.

“If it wasn’t for the research done at the University of Missouri, cancer patients wouldn’t be receiving these drugs,” said David Robertson, director of research at MURR.

In the next several years, Columbia is set to become home to more research on radioactive isotopes. Oregon-based Northwest Medical Isotopes went before the Nuclear Regulatory Committee on Jan. 23 for an hearing on its proposal for a new facility at Discovery Ridge in Columbia. CEO Nick Fowler said his company has been collaborating with MURR throughout the planning for the new facility.

Northwest Medical Isotopes aims to produce an isotope known as “moly-99”. The isotope is used in medical imaging tests to detect cancer and other dangerous diseases.

“There’s no domestic supplier of moly-99, so we’re looking forward to being the first producer and having Columbia as our home base,” Fowler said.

The company hopes to get final regulatory approval for the Columbia facility in the next three months and start production immediately after that.