In 2012, the federal government launched efforts to establish domestic production of a medical isotope known as Molybdenum-99.
The goal was to increase access to Mo-99’s decay product, technetium-99m, a radioactive nuclear agent used in more than 40,000 medical procedures in the U.S. daily to diagnose heart disease and cancer. The agent is described by the National Library of Medicine as the “workhorse isotope in nuclear medicine for diagnostic imaging.”
Here’s the problem: Historically, the majority of Mo-99 production has been done overseas by foreign companies in Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands and South Africa. And the isotope has a “shelf life” of only about 66 hours, so by the time it arrives in the U.S., about a third of the shipment is unusable. That means medical providers often can’t give patients what they need.
Janesville-based SHINE Technologies LLC and Beloit-based NorthStar Medical Radioisotopes LLC are now two out of three U.S. producers of Mo-99, under cooperative agreements awarded by the Department of Energy.
Developing radioactive material that’s pure enough to inject into the human body requires highly specialized training in radiochemistry, including separations involving radioactive materials. For biohealth companies like SHINE and NorthStar, it’s a skillset that can be hard to find.
One chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is helping to fill that skills gap by training students in the science of biochemical separation. A former staff scientist at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, Illinois, Mark Dietz joined UW-Milwaukee in 2008, bringing research and field experience in analytical chemistry and chemical separations. Over the past four years, five graduates of Dietz’s lab have been hired by SHINE Technologies and NorthStar Medical to support the production of radioisotopes.
“UWM and its graduates have contributed to Wisconsin employers’ ability to solve an issue of national importance,” Dietz said.
He got connected with NorthStar through James Harvey, a former Argonne colleague who is now chief science officer at NorthStar. The two had kept in touch periodically, and when NorthStar was in need of a separations chemist, Harvey reached out to recruit one of Dietz’s students upon graduation. It was a similar case with SHINE Technologies. An employee contacted Dietz asking if he and his lab would be interested in collaborating.
“I said, ‘Of course,’ and that led to some of my students getting hired there,” he said.
Dietz instructs his students to view the study of chemical separations from a broad lens but also to be on the lookout for ways they can utilize their scientific expertise for real-world solutions, for example, the development of critical medical diagnostic material.
“Our goal is to do good, fundamental science but at the same time, have an eye on the eventual application of that science,” said Dietz. “I think it serves my graduates well because when they get out (of school), they’re grounded in solid, fundamental chemistry, but at the same time they understand the importance of being able to apply it to a real problem.”
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For SHINE Technologies, the partnership with Dietz’s lab allows the company to get to know students through temporary positions or internships prior to a full-time offer, said chief executive officer Greg Piefer.
“That’s good in so many ways,” said Piefer. “Ultimately, it’s much less of a risk to hire them because you already know if it’s going to work out, but it also trains them and gets them used to what we’re doing so they can hit the ground running.”
“There’s just not a lot of radiochemistry expertise out there, so having someone like (Mark) in our backyard is really helpful,” he added.
SHINE regularly recruits from a wide range of universities – both in and out of state – that have “deep technical” talent pools, which is where most of the company’s talent needs lie, said Peifer, adding the amount of time and effort devoted to early talent recruitment will only increase as the company continues to grow.
To that end, Dietz said it’s vital that higher ed faculty stay in the know about the needs of area companies and vice versa. In his case, personal connections ultimately led to fruitful relationships with SHINE and NorthStar, but Dietz knows that’s not the reality for every professor.
“There has to be a mechanism whereby local businesses become aware of what universities can do and universities become aware of what the needs are in the surrounding area,” he said. “If those things can happen, universities can do good, fundamental research and have it be of significance to companies in the area. We’ve been lucky to be able to do that.”
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When it comes to strengthening the pipeline between Wisconsin’s higher education institutions and the nearly 2,650 companies that make up the state’s biohealth industry, there’s a lot of work to do, said Mike Harrison, director of Milwaukee operations and education initiatives at BioForward Wisconsin, an industry group with more than 200 member organizations, including 40 in the Milwaukee area.
Part of BioForward’s mission is to attract qualified talent to fill the well over 1,000 open biohealth positions across the state. Harrison noted that figure is likely much higher now in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the industry was forced to devote almost all resources to ramping up testing and critical supplies and developing new treatments.
“As a result, the talent shortages we had in our industry have done nothing but become more severe,” he said.
Solving the hiring challenges of a statewide industry is a herculean task for one organization, so BioForward tries to hit the biggest problems first, said Harrison. The group is currently working with the master’s program in biotechnology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to develop training programs for specific skills that member companies need.
“We want to start with broad skills first because that way we can hopefully fill more positions faster,” he said. “But for every 100 positions we can fill with one program, there are hundreds of others in different skill sets. … Universities need to do more, industry needs to do more and we need to do more.”