BERKELEY, CA — Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the National Center for Research Resources (NCRR), a component of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), have announced that the NIH-sponsored National Tritium Labeling Facility (NTLF) will end operations in December after more than 19 years of service to medical and chemical science research.
Berkeley Lab Director Charles V. Shank and NCRR Director of the Division of Biomedical Technology Michael T. Marron made the joint announcement today.
"In its almost two decades at the Laboratory, the NTLF and its outstanding staff have served the nation well," said Shank. "It was an important tool for biological and medical research and provided immense value in our understanding of chemical processes in disease development and suppression."
Marron agreed, noting that the NIH will focus its investments on alternative techniques for detection and imaging at the cellular and molecular levels. "What we learned from the NTLF was invaluable in developing the new techniques, as well as in advancing our knowledge of the mechanisms through which diseases are treated," he said.
Marron said the reasons for withdrawing NTLF funding were its limited success in attracting NIH-supported investigators, its limited number of scholarly papers published in high-impact research journals, and its difficulties in recruiting and hiring a Ph.D Health Physicist.
He and Shank both acknowledged that the facility has enjoyed a good safety record and has operated well within all applicable public health regulations, despite safety concerns expressed by some community members.
Over the next six months, the facility’s apparatus will be dismantled for appropriate waste disposal, and the tritium – a radioactive form of hydrogen which formed the basis for the molecule labeling process – will be removed. The building will be decontaminated and eventually converted to another use.
Shank praised the employees of the NTLF for their long and productive service. "Dr. (Phil) Williams (the facility manager) and Dr. (Manouchehr) Saljoughian have been on the staff for more than 16 years, Mr. (Hiromi) Morimoto for 18 years, and Dr. (Chit) Than for eight years. They are to be congratulated for the distinguished contributions they have made to their profession and to our understanding of biological processes."
The NTLF was established as an NIH national resource center in 1982. The facility's role has been to conduct research in tritium labeling methods and help biomedical researchers study biological processes that can have an impact in curing disease.
Facility staff and visiting researchers would "label" pharmaceuticals and other biological molecules with tritium (replacing ordinary hydrogen atoms with radioactive tritium atoms). For example, a potential cancer drug might be tritium-labeled so that researchers could trace where the drug is deposited in the body and how it is metabolized. Because tritium is radioactive, it can be easily detected and measured, even in complex mixtures, whereas the "nonlabeled" material would be hard to find in the body.
NTLF collaborations with biomedical researchers from universities and pharmaceutical companies have led to the development of a number of radiotracers that are now staple tools of medical science. From norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter which modulates many functions, including blood pressure; to cyclosporine, an immunosuppressant used to protect transplanted tissues from rejection by the recipient’s immune system; to interleukin, a protein used to enhance the function of the immune systems of AIDS patients, compounds tagged with tritium at the NTLF have broadened the scope of medical research at the cellular and molecular levels.
Over the past decade, the NTLF dramatically expanded the chemistry available for tritium labeling. The staff was able to make, for the first time, many high specific activity reagents that have been widely applied in synthetic chemistry. Investigations have included tracking of proteins which play important roles in certain cancers, studying the chemistry of enzymes which modify RNA in different ways, and analyzing the behavior of proteins important to the process of drug metabolism in humans.
The NTLF has been the subject of numerous safety reviews and risk assessments over the past several years and has been currently undergoing a series of environmental sampling efforts for a community-based task force. The Lab had recently announced the addition of new air monitoring stations and the redesign of the NTLF’s circulation and exhaust system.
In light of the NIH decision, the Laboratory will develop a schedule for the completion of the task force’s efforts, according to David McGraw, Berkeley Lab Director of Environment, Health and Safety. He said the new air monitoring stations will continue as environmental measurement tools while NTLF operations wind down.
"We greatly appreciate all the time and effort invested by our community in this issue," McGraw said. "The members of the Environmental Sampling Project Task Force have worked diligently and tirelessly to advise us on our efforts to ensure a safe and healthy environment. And we hope our numerous interactions with Berkeley City officials on this issue will provide a foundation for productive conversations about laboratory programs in the coming years."
Berkeley Lab is a U.S. Department of Energy laboratory located in Berkeley, California. It conducts unclassified scientific research and is managed by the University of California.