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Recovery of 177Lu from Irradiated HfO2 Targets for Nuclear Medicine Purposes

Andrey G. Kazakov
Taisya Y. Ekatova
Julia S. Babenya
Sergey S. Belyshev
Vadim V. Khankin
Alexander A. Kuznetsov
Sergey E. Vinokurov
1 and
Boris F. Myasoedov
Radiochemistry Laboratory, Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences (GEOKHI RAS), Kosygin St., 19, 119991 Moscow, Russia
Skobeltsyn Institute of Nuclear Physics, Lomonosov Moscow State University, Leninskie Gory, 1, Bld. 2, 119991 Moscow, Russia
Department of Physics, Lomonosov Moscow State University, Leninskie Gory, 1, Bld. 2, 119991 Moscow, Russia
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Molecules 2022, 27(10), 3179;
Submission received: 30 March 2022 / Revised: 12 May 2022 / Accepted: 14 May 2022 / Published: 16 May 2022


A new method of production of one of the most widely used isotopes in nuclear medicine, 177Lu, with high chemical purity was developed; this method includes irradiation of the HfO2 target with bremsstrahlung photons. The irradiated target was dissolved in HF and then diluted and placed onto a column filled with LN resin. Quantitative sorption of 177Lu could be observed during this process. The column later was rinsed with the mixture of 0.1 M HF and 1 M HNO3 and then 2 M HNO3 to remove impurities. Quantitative desorption of 177Lu was achieved by using 6 M HNO3. The developed method of 177Lu production ensures high purification of this isotope from macroquantities of hafnium and zirconium and radioactive impurities of carrier-free yttrium. The content of 177mLu in 177Lu in photonuclear production was determined. Due to high chemical and radionuclide purity, 177Lu obtained by the developed method can be used in nuclear medicine.

Graphical Abstract

1. Introduction

177Lu is one of the most known and widely used therapeutic radioisotopes in nuclear medicine [1]. The first clinical application of 177Lu happened in the 1960s; however, the breakthrough in using radiopharmaceuticals based on this radionuclide occurred later with the development of the 177Lu-DOTATATE complex designed to treat neuroendocrine tumors [2,3,4]. Nowadays, the main method of 177Lu production is the irradiation of 176Lu or 176Yb in nuclear reactors, and this production has its disadvantages. Thus, the operation of reactors leads to the accumulation of nuclear waste; irradiation of 176Lu leads to 177Lu with carrier; recovery of 177Lu from neighbor lanthanide Yb is not a simple task [1]. As a result, other perspective methods of 177Lu production have been investigated recently, the photonuclear one in particular. Today, this method is used for medical isotope production. For instance, light isotopes 11C, 13N, 15O, and 18F as well as radiometals 47Sc, 67Cu, and 99Mo/99mTc generators are regularly obtained in sufficient quantities using electron accelerators [5]. Compared to the use of nuclear reactors, the photonuclear method has the following advantages: the compact sizes of electron accelerators that create an opportunity of placing one near the hospital and the relatively cheap cost of accelerators’ functioning. The main disadvantage is cross-sections of photonuclear reactions that are usually lower than ones in reactor production. Data about photonuclear production of 177Lu from hafnium are limited [6,7,8].
One of the issues of 177Lu production is the formation of long-lived isomer 177mLu (T1/2 = 160.4 d), the content of which should be minimized in 177Lu-based radiopharmaceuticals (the activities ratio of 177mLu and 177Lu should not exceed 0.02 %). The method of 177Lu recovery from irradiated HfO2 using extraction chromatography was developed by us to determine the amount of formed 177mLu in purified lutetium fractions [8]; any other techniques of recovery of trace amounts of lutetium from macroquantities of hafnium are absent. However, no gamma-ray peaks of 177mLu were observed during a long registration of the gamma-ray spectrum of purified lutetium solution due to the registration of yttrium isotopes forming from zirconium impurities contained in the initial sample of HfO2; their Compton plateau in the gamma-ray spectrum overlaps with 177mLu peaks. Consequently, the development of methods of additional purification of recovered 177Lu from forming during irradiation yttrium isotopes is a task of current interest.
The isotope 177Lu can be produced either from hafnium with natural isotopic composition or from enriched 178Hf, which is notably more expensive. It was mentioned that to produce 177Lu with radionuclide purity sufficient for nuclear medicine, it is necessary to irradiate massive (a few grams) targets made of 178Hf [8] and, as a result, such expensive target material should be reused after the recovery of 177Lu.
The purpose of this work was to develop a promising method of 177Lu production from HfO2 using electron accelerator with subsequent purification from hafnium, zirconium, and especially yttrium, to develop a technique of irradiated HfO2 regeneration, and also to determine the amount of 177mLu produced during this irradiation.

2. Results and Discussion

In our work, a new method of 177Lu production for nuclear medicine was developed: irradiation of HfO2 with bremsstrahlung photons, its dissolution, and recovery of 177Lu using extraction chromatography; the corresponding scheme is presented in Figure 1.

2.1. Development of Method of Recovery of 177Lu from Macroquantities of Hafnium and Zirconium, Trace Amounts of Yttrium Isotopes

Method of 177Lu recovery from irradiated HfO2, developed previously by us, included the following steps: target material dissolution in HFconc and dilution of the obtained solution fifteen times with 1 M HNO3; sorption of lutetium on the column filled with LN resin (based on di(2-ethylhexyl)orthophosporic acid); rinsing the column with 1 M HNO3 and 0.1 M HF mixture and then with 1 M HNO3 for the remaining hafnium and for fluoride ion removals, accordingly; and, finally, rinsing with 6 M HNO3 to desorb 177Lu [8]. To further purify 177Lu from yttrium, the step of column rinsing with 2.5 M HNO3 was introduced before the desorption of 177Lu; this solution was proved to be the optimal media for quantitative desorption of yttrium according to the conducted experiments (see Supplementary Section). Table 1 contains data on the content of hafnium, zirconium, yttrium, and lutetium in eluates obtained during different stages of the developing technique; a chromatogram is presented in Figure 2.
It was established that hafnium and zirconium did not sorb onto the column during the sorption of lutetium; however, approximately 60% of yttrium was sorbed. Yttrium quantitatively desorbed during the column rinsing with 2.5 M HNO3, while lutetium remained on the column. During the subsequent rinsing with 6 M HNO3, 177Lu quantitatively (no less than 98%) desorbed from the column.
Hafnium content in the obtained solution of lutetium was lower than the detection limit of ICP-MS. This led to the conclusion that the real content of hafnium in the 177Lu solution during the recovery following this method is 1.2 × 1010 times lower compared to the content in the initial solution, which is five orders of magnitude higher than the result obtained by us earlier [8]. Zirconium content in the final product, according to ICP-MS, is 1.7 × 106 times lower than in the initial solution. As for the purification of lutetium from yttrium, no peaks of yttrium isotopes were detected in a gamma-ray spectrum of lutetium solution aliquot during prolonged registration. Thus, according to the detection limit of 88Y, yttrium content in the final solution was 104 times lower than in the initial one.

2.2. Recovery of 177Lu from Irradiated HfO2, Determination of 177mLu Content, and Regeneration of HfO2

A target with a mass of 16 g was irradiated with bremsstrahlung photons with energy up to 55 MeV for 8 h; then, it was dissolved in HF, and the recovery was conducted according to the technique described above. It was established that the purification degree was achieved as outlined above, and the lutetium yield was 98.5 ± 0.5%.
The high purification level of lutetium from macroquantities of hafnium, zirconium, and trace amounts of yttrium, formed during the irradiation of zirconium achieved in our work, allowed us to detect 177mLu peaks during prolonged registration of the gamma-ray spectrum of the obtained lutetium. Figure 3 presents the dependency of count rate of the 208 keV line, which is the most intense for both 177Lu and 177mLu, on time after the lutetium isotope’s recovery. It can be seen in Figure 1 that it is possible to determine the contribution of 177mLu in the count rate of this line after 177Lu decay, which allows us to precisely determine the radioactivity of 177mLu after the irradiation. Thus, the ratio of the activity of 177mLu to the activity of 177Lu in the photonuclear production of 177Lu was established to be (2.87 ± 0.07) × 10−5 (or 0.00287%). Table 2 allows us to compare the activity ratios 177mLu/177Lu in production by different methods, and it is clear that the ratio in case of the photonuclear method is minimal among direct production routes, and 177Lu obtained by this method can be used in nuclear medicine.
According to X-ray diffraction (XRD), the spectra of commercial HfO2 and the product of calcination of hafnium hydroxide obtained during the recovery of 177Lu are identical, and values of interplanar distances coincide with the values for HfO2 from the database. Thus, after heating, HfO2 can be stored to decrease activity of hafnium isotopes if necessary, and can be reused for irradiation for 177Lu production.

2.3. Comparison of Methods of Obtaining Carrier-Free 177Lu

We demonstrated the possibility of producing and separating 177Lu for nuclear medicine using electron accelerators. In conclusion, we present a comparison of this method and the production of 177Lu without a carrier in a reactor and a cyclotron.
In the case of 176Yb irradiation in the reactor, it is possible to produce 1.8 GBq of 177Lu (therapeutic activity) by irradiating 5 mg of 97.6% 176Yb2O3 for 10 days using flux of 1 × 1014 n∙cm−2∙s−1 [12]. According to calculations based on experimental data, the same activity of 177Lu can be obtained by irradiating a 100 µm plate of 100% 176Yb with deuterons for about 2 h at a current of 0.1 mA [13]. According to our earlier theoretical calculations, 1.8 GBq of carrier-free 177Lu can be produced in an electron accelerator by irradiating an enriched 179HfO2 target at a current of 0.1 mA [8]. However, it is important to note that the results of calculating the yields of photoproton reactions are usually underestimated from several times to several orders of magnitude. Thus, the determination of the experimental values of 177Lu yields upon irradiation of enriched targets made of 178Hf or 179Hf is an urgent problem.
As for the separation of 177Lu from irradiated Yb targets, the process takes a long time, and the loss of 177Lu can reach 15% [12]. At the same time, in the present work, we demonstrated the possibility of rapid and quantitative recovery of 177Lu from irradiated HfO2. When 177Lu is produced in a reactor, the long-lived 177mLu isomer is completely absent [10]; when produced in an electron accelerator, isomer activity is 0.00287% of the activity of 177Lu; and during cyclotron production, isomer activity does not exceed 0.0045% of 177Lu one [11].
It is difficult to compare the cost of 177Lu obtained by different methods for a number of reasons. The cost of production in the reactor is the lowest, but this method has disadvantages mentioned in the Introduction, including radioactive waste generation. Per unit of time, a higher 177Lu activity is generated in the cyclotron than in an electron accelerator; however, the cost of the operation of the latter is lower. Finally, it is worth considering that the regeneration of HfO2 targets is easy, as we demonstrated, while 176Yb is usually not regenerated.
As a result, each of the described methods has its advantages and disadvantages, and each can be used to obtain 177Lu for nuclear medicine purposes. In any case, it is currently possible to produce 177Lu for preclinical studies in electron accelerators. Further development of the photonuclear method for obtaining 177Lu consists of establishing the exact values of the yields of the desirable isotope after irradiation of different enriched hafnium targets.

3. Materials and Methods

3.1. Irradiation of HfO2

natHfO2 with a weight of 16 g was placed in cylindrical polypropylene container with a volume of 5 mL; the remaining space in container was filled with cotton wool. The container was then irradiated for 8 h in RTM-55 microtron with maximum energy of electron beam being 55 MeV [14]. Tungsten plate of 2 mm thickness was used as an electron convertor; the usual value of average current was 100–200 nA for used accelerator. During radiochemical analysis of irradiated target isotopes 177,178,179Lu, 173,175Hf, 89Zr, and 88Y were found; the same isotopes were also observed in our work [8].

3.2. Target Dissolution, Recovery of 177Lu, and Regeneration of HfO2

Irradiated HfO2 was dissolved in HFconc by boiling for 1.5 h. Obtained solution was diluted 15 times with 1 M HNO3, resulting in approximately 260 mL.
Four identical columns with volume of 3 mL and diameter of 0.6 cm each, filled with LN resin (100–150 mesh, Triskem Int, Bruz, France), were used in following recovery by extraction chromatography. The solution was divided into 4 equal portions; each was eluted through its own column. Fractions of 5 mL each were gathered during the elution; their gamma-ray spectra were registered using spectrometer with high-purity germanium detector Canberra GC1020 (Canberra Ind, Meridan, CT, USA). Content of hafnium, zirconium, and lutetium in fractions during recovery process was determined using gamma-peaks of the following isotopes: 177Lu (208.4 keV), 175Hf (343.4 keV), 89Zr (909 keV). Content of yttrium was determined during prolonged registration of spectra using 88Y peak (898 keV).
Regeneration of hafnium from the initial solution eluted through the column was conducted by adding ammonia to form precipitate of hafnium hydroxide. This precipitate was separated from the solution by filtration and then was heated for 4 h at 850 °C until the formation of HfO2. XRD spectra (Miniflex 600, Rigaku Corporation, Tokyo, Japan) of obtained product were compared to the spectra of initial HfO2 using database PDF-2.
Study of yttrium behavior on LN resin was carried out by determination of distribution coefficients using 90Y tracer. Content of 90Y in solutions was determined by liquid scintillation spectrometry (LS-spectrometer GreenStar, Moscow, Russia) using liquid scintillation cocktail UltimaGold (PerkinElmer Inc., Shelton, CT, USA), taking into account efficiency calibration for acid concentration.

3.3. Determination of Purification Degree of 177Lu and 177mLu Content

1 mL was taken from fractions containing purified lutetium (80 mL) to determine its hafnium and zirconium content using quadrupole mass-spectrometer with inductively coupled plasma X-series II (Thermo Fisher Scientific, Dreieich, Hessen, Germany). Remaining lutetium solution was evaporated to dryness on a round steel plate with a diameter of 2 cm to determine content of 177mLu and purification degree of 177Lu by radiometry. Activity of plate then was measured several times for the following 270 days using gamma-ray spectrometer with high-purity germanium detector GC3019 (Canberra Ind). Calibration of count efficiency depending on the energy of registered isotope was conducted using measurements of activity of certified point sources (152Eu, 137Cs, 60Co, 241Am) in different location geometries of source and detector and was also modeled in GEANT4. Identification of peak maximum in spectra was carried out using automatic system of spectrum record and analysis, specially created for this purpose. Thus, spectra with duration of 3.5 s each were saved into the database, and analysis system allowed us to summarize them and display total spectrum with assigned duration [15].
Purification degree of 177Lu from macroquantities of Hf and Zr was calculated by dividing the mass of Hf or Zr in the initial solution by the mass of ones in purified lutetium solution using ICP-MS data. Purification degree of 177Lu from microquantities of 88Y was determined by gamma-ray spectrometry.

4. Conclusions

A method of recovery of carrier-free 177Lu from macroquantities of hafnium and zirconium and trace amounts of yttrium was developed; the yield of lutetium was not less than 98%. Contents of hafnium, zirconium, and yttrium in the obtained solution of 177Lu were at least 1.19 × 1010, 1.7 × 106, and 104 times lower compared to the initial solution. The achieved level of 177Lu purification allowed us to determine the activity of 177mLu during the prolonged registration of the gamma-ray spectrum, resulting in determination of the 177mLu/177Lu activities ratio that reached a value of (2.87 ± 0.07) × 10−5 for the photonuclear method at the studied energy; this ratio indicates a high purity of the obtained 177Lu and the possibility of its use in nuclear medicine. The developed method was successfully applied to obtain 177Lu after the irradiation of 16 g of HfO2 in an electron accelerator. It was demonstrated that irradiated HfO2 could be quantitatively regenerated and later be reused for the production of the medical isotope 177Lu.
Thus, we demonstrate that it is possible to produce and quantitatively recover 177Lu for preclinical studies using an electron accelerator. Moreover, the photonuclear production of 177Lu can also become an alternative method for its obtaining, but to date, an experimental study of the yields of photoproton reactions on enriched targets made of 178Hf and 179Hf is required.

Supplementary Materials

The following supporting information can be downloaded at:, Figure S1: Distribution coefficients (Kd) of Y onto LN resin in HNO3, Figure S2: Elution curve of 90Y during elution of model solution containing 1 g of dissolved HfO2 through LN resin column.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, A.G.K.; methodology, A.G.K., S.S.B. and B.F.M.; software, S.S.B. and A.A.K.; validation, A.G.K., S.E.V. and B.F.M.; formal analysis, A.G.K., S.S.B. and A.A.K.; investigation, A.G.K., T.Y.E., J.S.B., S.S.B. and V.V.K.; resources, V.V.K., S.E.V. and B.F.M.; data curation, S.S.B.; writing—original draft preparation, A.G.K., T.Y.E. and J.S.B.; writing—review and editing, S.S.B., A.A.K., S.E.V. and B.F.M.; visualization, A.G.K., T.Y.E., J.S.B. and S.S.B.; supervision, B.F.M.; project administration, B.F.M.; funding acquisition, A.G.K., S.E.V. and B.F.M. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


The study was supported by the Russian Science Foundation (project no. 21-13-00449).

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable.

Informed Consent Statement

Not applicable.

Data Availability Statement

Not applicable.


The authors are grateful to Sergey Danilov and Ksenia Belova from Radiochemistry Laboratory of GEOKHI RAS for the conduction and interpretation of XRD.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Sample Availability Statement

Not applicable.


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Figure 1. Scheme of developed method of 177Lu recovery after its production in electron accelerators and regeneration of HfO2.
Figure 1. Scheme of developed method of 177Lu recovery after its production in electron accelerators and regeneration of HfO2.
Molecules 27 03179 g001
Figure 2. Elution curves of Hf, Zr, and Lu in developed recovery method. Activities of Y isotopes were too low to make its elution curve.
Figure 2. Elution curves of Hf, Zr, and Lu in developed recovery method. Activities of Y isotopes were too low to make its elution curve.
Molecules 27 03179 g002
Figure 3. Dependency of count rate of 208 keV line, which is present in both 177Lu and 177mLu spectra, on time after irradiation. Dots—experimental data, lines—fit. Blue lines—fit of 177Lu decay, orange lines—fit of 177mLu decay.
Figure 3. Dependency of count rate of 208 keV line, which is present in both 177Lu and 177mLu spectra, on time after irradiation. Dots—experimental data, lines—fit. Blue lines—fit of 177Lu decay, orange lines—fit of 177mLu decay.
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Table 1. Quantities of 177Lu and other elements in eluate during different stages of 177Lu recovery.
Table 1. Quantities of 177Lu and other elements in eluate during different stages of 177Lu recovery.
StageContent of Elements in Eluate, % of Initial
Sorption of 177Lu onto the column, rinsing with the mixture of 1 M HNO3 and 0.1 M HF 10010040<2
Rinsing with 2.5 M HNO300600
Desorption of 177Lu with 6 M HNO3000>98
Table 2. 177mLu/177Lu activity ratios in production of 177Lu via different methods.
Table 2. 177mLu/177Lu activity ratios in production of 177Lu via different methods.
Nuclear Reactions Producing 177Lu177mLu/177Lu Activity Ratio
178Hf(γ,p)177Lu (determined in this work)0.00287%
178Hf(γ,p)177Lu (determined previously)<0.013% [8]
176Lu(n,γ)177Lu<0.02% [9]
176Yb(n,γ)177Yb → 177Lu0 [10]
176Yb(d,p)177Yb → 177Lu + 176Yb(d,n)177Lu<0.0045% [11]
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Kazakov, A.G.; Ekatova, T.Y.; Babenya, J.S.; Belyshev, S.S.; Khankin, V.V.; Kuznetsov, A.A.; Vinokurov, S.E.; Myasoedov, B.F. Recovery of 177Lu from Irradiated HfO2 Targets for Nuclear Medicine Purposes. Molecules 2022, 27, 3179.

AMA Style

Kazakov AG, Ekatova TY, Babenya JS, Belyshev SS, Khankin VV, Kuznetsov AA, Vinokurov SE, Myasoedov BF. Recovery of 177Lu from Irradiated HfO2 Targets for Nuclear Medicine Purposes. Molecules. 2022; 27(10):3179.

Chicago/Turabian Style

Kazakov, Andrey G., Taisya Y. Ekatova, Julia S. Babenya, Sergey S. Belyshev, Vadim V. Khankin, Alexander A. Kuznetsov, Sergey E. Vinokurov, and Boris F. Myasoedov. 2022. "Recovery of 177Lu from Irradiated HfO2 Targets for Nuclear Medicine Purposes" Molecules 27, no. 10: 3179.

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