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TORONTO (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of medical tests worldwide were in jeopardy on Wednesday after a key maker of radioisotopes for nuclear medicine said its Canadian reactor would be out of commission longer than expected.
The delays come after Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd said late on Tuesday that its National Research Universal reactor at Chalk River in eastern Ontario, which supplies more than two-thirds of the world's radioisotopes, would not be back to full production until early to mid-January.
The plant was expected to be back at normal production by mid-December but officials were forced to extend the shutdown after unplanned electrical work was needed.
Chalk River is a key producer of medical isotopes for Canadian healthcare company MDS Inc and its MDS Nordion division, which is responsible for about 50 percent of the world supply.
When injected into the body, the isotopes give off radiation that can be imaged with a camera to diagnose cancer, heart disease and other medical conditions.
The reactor shutdown threatens to delay a substantial amount of medical tests around the world, a Canadian expert on radiopharmacy said.
"MDS Nordion is one of the world's leading suppliers of this radio isotope, so it's not just a Canadian situation but a worldwide situation," Raymond Reilly, a radiopharmacist and professor of pharmacy at the University of Toronto, told Reuters.
"This is a critical radioisotope that is used to produce radiopharmaceuticals to diagnose many types of diseases and, therefore, the impact is quite widespread and important for patients with all kinds of health conditions."
The isotope is used in about 90 percent of all imaging studies in nuclear medicine.
"It is basically the cornerstone of nuclear medicine in terms of diagnostic imaging," Reilly said.
Andrew Ross, a nuclear medicine specialist in Halifax, Nova Scotia, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. he has already canceled tests for 100 patients and expected to cancel 100 more next week.
It is difficult to predict how widespread the testing delays will be, however, as some supplies can be obtained from other sources, Reilly said, noting that European sites obtain their isotopes from a different supplier.
A spokeswoman at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto said its facility was not affected as it gets its supplies elsewhere.
"AECL recognizes the important role NRU plays in the supply and delivery of medical isotopes to patients around the world," AECL's senior vice-president and chief nuclear officer, Brian McGee, said in a release.
"We understand that patients will be impacted by this development and we are focused on completing the work procedures as quickly as possible," he said.
AECL, a government-owned nuclear technology firm, was not immediately available for further comment.
Reporting by Scott Anderson; Editing by Rob Wilson