Yttrium-90 Chloride: A Vital Component in Radioimmunotherapy

Yttrium-90 (90Y) chloride represents a pivotal element in the realm of nuclear medicine, particularly in the innovative approach of radioimmunotherapy (RIT). The isotope yttrium-90 is a pure beta emitter, which, when used in radiolabelling, offers significant therapeutic potential due to its optimal half-life and energy for tumour irradiation. Its use in RIT harnesses the specificity of monoclonal antibodies to target cancer cells while delivering lethal doses of radiation to eradicate malignancies.

Properties and Production of Yttrium-90

Yttrium-90 is a radioactive isotope with a half-life of approximately 64 hours, making it suitable for medical applications. It decays to stable zirconium-90, releasing beta radiation, a highly ionizing form of radiation that is lethal to cells. The isotope is typically produced in nuclear reactors through the neutron activation of yttrium-89 or as a byproduct of strontium-90 decay, which is a fission product of uranium and plutonium.

The physical characteristics of yttrium-90, particularly its relatively long half-life compared to other therapeutic radionuclides, allow sufficient time for the preparation of radiopharmaceuticals, patient dosing, and the delivery of therapy before significant decay occurs. Furthermore, the beta particles emitted by yttrium-90 have a maximum energy of 2.28 MeV and an average penetration range in tissue of approximately 2.5 mm. This limited range minimizes damage to surrounding healthy tissues while being highly effective at destroying cancer cells within the targeted area.

Radiolabelling with Yttrium-90 Chloride

Radiolabelling involves attaching a radioactive isotope to a compound, such as a monoclonal antibody, peptide, or other molecule that can specifically bind to cancer cells. Yttrium-90 chloride serves as a precursor for the synthesis of radiopharmaceuticals. The chloride form is soluble and reactive, allowing for the facile exchange of the yttrium ion into the chelating agent that is bound to the targeting molecule. The chemistry of yttrium is such that it forms stable complexes with a variety of chelators, which is crucial for ensuring that the radiolabel remains attached to the antibody or peptide during the time it takes to locate and bind to the tumour cells.

The process of radiolabelling with yttrium-90 chloride requires meticulous preparation and control. Chelating agents are carefully chosen based on their ability to form stable, non-dissociable complexes with yttrium. The radiolabelling procedure is conducted under sterile and apyrogenic conditions to meet the strict regulatory standards necessary for injectable pharmaceuticals. The quality of the resulting yttrium-90 labelled compound is rigorously tested for purity, sterility, and integrity of the antibody or peptide conjugate.

Radioimmunotherapy and Yttrium-90

Radioimmunotherapy combines the specificity of immunotherapy with the cell-killing effectiveness of radiation therapy. Monoclonal antibodies can be designed to target specific antigens that are overexpressed on the surface of cancer cells. When these antibodies are labelled with a radioactive isotope like yttrium-90, they can deliver a focused dose of radiation directly to the tumour site.

The radiolabeled antibodies are administered intravenously, allowing them to circulate throughout the body and bind to the target cancer cells. Once bound, the emitted beta radiation from yttrium-90 induces double-strand breaks in the DNA of the cancer cells, leading to cell death. The localized action of the radiation helps to preserve healthy tissue, a significant advantage over traditional radiation therapy, which can have widespread effects on both healthy and malignant cells.

Clinical Applications of Yttrium-90 in Radioimmunotherapy

The use of yttrium-90 in RIT has been investigated and applied in the treatment of various types of cancer, including non-Hodgkin lymphoma, colorectal cancer, and other malignancies that express particular antigens suitable for targeted therapy. One of the first FDA-approved yttrium-90 radiolabeled antibodies was ibritumomab tiuxetan (Zevalin), used in the treatment of B-cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

In addition to its role in RIT, yttrium-90 chloride is also used in radioembolization, a procedure that involves the delivery of microspheres loaded with yttrium-90 to liver tumours via the hepatic artery. This method allows for the localized treatment of liver malignancies with high doses of radiation while sparing the surrounding healthy liver tissue.

Safety and Handling of Yttrium-90 Chloride

The handling of yttrium-90 chloride and the preparation of yttrium-90 labelled compounds require specialized facilities and trained personnel. The facilities must be designed to contain radiation and prevent exposure to healthcare workers and the environment. Radiation safety protocols are in place to monitor the preparation, administration, and disposal of radioactive materials.

Patients undergoing RIT with yttrium-90 labelled antibodies are considered radioactive for a period of time after treatment. Special precautions are taken to limit radiation exposure to family members and the public following therapy. Despite these precautions, RIT with yttrium-90 has been shown to be well-tolerated, with a manageable side effect profile compared to conventional cancer treatments.


Yttrium-90 chloride plays a crucial role in the field of nuclear medicine, particularly within the context of radioimmunotherapy. Its radiophysical properties, combined with the precision targeting of monoclonal antibodies, provide a powerful tool in the fight against cancer. As research progresses, the potential applications of yttrium-90 may expand, offering hope for more effective and less toxic cancer treatments. The continued development and refinement of yttrium-90 chloride-based therapies exemplify the synergy between medical innovation and the quest to improve patient outcomes in oncology.

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