Los Alamos turns its nuclear weapons power to war on cancer

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Inside the Top-Secret Nuclear Lab at Forefront of Cancer Research

Hidden amid the mountains and mesas of northern New Mexico lies Los Alamos National Laboratory. It's shrouded in secrecy. Once known simply as Project Y, it was a classified lab where scientists built the atomic bomb.

Now, 70 years later, scientists there still work on nuclear weapons, but they're also using some of that same knowledge to battle cancer.

NBC News got exclusive access to the secure facility, where physicist Eva Birnbaum is working to use radioactive elements to battle cancer.

See photos from the Los Alamos National Laboratory:

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Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico
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Los Alamos turns its nuclear weapons power to war on cancer
The building which houses the Advanced Computing Laboratory(to the right in the foreground) is situated within what is called the Main Technical Area June 14, 1999. This area includes the Director's office, administrative offices, buildings that house the Central Computing Facility, the Advanced Computing Laboratory, the Material Science Laboratory, earth and space laboratories, chemistry and physics laboratories, technical shops, cryogenics laboratories, a Van de Graaff accelerator, the main cafeteria, the main library, and the Study Center. This area contains about 50% of the Laboratory's employees and floor space. Allegations of espionage, from within Los Alamos National Laboratory, hit the headlines in March 1999 when scientist Wen Ho Lee was fired from the lab in New Mexico amid suspicions he passed classified information to China. He has not been charged with any crime, and through his lawyer he has denied providing nuclear secrets to China or anyone else. China has also denied spying or stealing U.S. nuclear secrets. (photo by Joe Raedle)
A sign greets vistors as they arrive on the Los Alamos National Laboratory campus June 14, 1999. The Los Alamos lab, located with the town of Los Alamos approximately 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe, occupies 43 square miles of land in Northern New Mexico. Owned by the Department of Energy, Los Alamos has been managed by the University of California since 1943, when the Laboratory was born as part of the Manhattan Project to create the first atomic weapons during World War II. Allegations of espionage, from within Los Alamos National Laboratory, hit the headlines in March 1999 when scientist Wen Ho Lee was fired from the lab in New Mexico amid suspicions he passed classified information to China. He has not been charged with any crime, and through his lawyer he has denied providing nuclear secrets to China or anyone else. China has also denied spying or stealing U.S. nuclear secrets. (photo by Joe Raedle)
A truck rolls out of one of the most heavily guarded facilities, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Plutonium Facility June 14, 1999. Razor wire and armed guards surround the place. Today, most of the nuclear materials activities at the Lab are carried out here. The complex chemistry associated with plutonium and other actinides in various physical states is examined using research and development in the fields of metallurgy, chemistry, engineering, and solid state physics. Allegations of espionage, from within Los Alamos National Laboratory, hit the headlines in March 1999 when scientist Wen Ho Lee was fired from the lab in New Mexico amid suspicions he passed classified information to China. He has not been charged with any crime, and through his lawyer he has denied providing nuclear secrets to China or anyone else. China has also denied spying or stealing U.S. nuclear secrets.(photo by Joe Raedle)
LOS ALAMOS, NM - NOVEMBER 30: Tim Haarmann, principle investigator with the Stealthy Insect Sensor Project at Los Alamos National Laboratory, checks on his bomb-sniffing honey bees November 30, 2006 at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Using Pavlovian-like techniques, researchers are taking advantage of the bees' keen sense of smell and their love of nectar to produce weapons in the war on terror. (Photo by Rick Scibelli/Getty Images)
LOS ALAMOS, NM - NOVEMBER 30: Bomb-sniffing honey bees rest in their custom-designed harnesses before going to work sniffing out explosives November 30, 2006 at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Using Pavlovian-like techniques, researchers are taking advantage of the bees' keen sense of smell and their love of nectar to produce weapons in the war on terror. (Photo by Rick Scibelli/Getty Images)
LOS ALAMOS, UNITED STATES: Facilities used to store low-level radioactive waste at the Los Alamos National Laboratory are pictured 13 May 2000 in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Originally threatened by the wilfires, the facility suffered only minor damage. AFP PHOTO/Paul BUCK (Photo credit should read PAUL BUCK/AFP/Getty Images)
LOS ALAMOS, UNITED STATES: This 13 May 2000 file photo shows smoke from the Cerro Grange wildfire (background) rising above the Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The FBI is investigating the disappearance of two computer hard drives containing highly classified nuclear data stored in a high security vault at the lab. AFP PHOTO/FILES/Paul BUCK (Photo credit should read PAUL BUCK/AFP/Getty Images)
A photograph on display at The Bradbury Science Museum shows the first thermonuclear test on October 31, 1952. The museum is Los Alamos National Laboratory's window to the public. The Museum displays the Laboratory's current research and presents the history of the Laboratory's role in the Manhattan Project during World War II. (photograph on display in the Bradbury Science museum, photo copied by Joe Raedle)
The Materials Science Laboratory building at Los Alamos National Laboratory. This building is part of the Lab facility known as the Main Technical Area, which includes the Director's office, administrative offices, buildings that house the Central Computing Facility, the Advanced Computing Laboratory, the Material Science Laboratory, earth and space laboratories, chemistry and physics laboratories, technical shops, cryogenics laboratories, a Van de Graaff accelerator, the main cafeteria, the main library, and the Study Center. This area contains about 50% of the Laboratory's employees and floor space. Allegations of espionage, from within Los Alamos National Laboratory, hit the headlines in March 1999 when scientist Wen Ho Lee was fired from the lab in New Mexico amid suspicions he passed classified information to China. He has not been charged with any crime, and through his lawyer he has denied providing nuclear secrets to China or anyone else. China has also denied spying or stealing U.S. nuclear secrets. (photo by Joe Raedle)
The Los Alamos Laboratory and the town of Los Alamos June 14, 1999. The Los Alamos lab, located with the town of Los Alamos approximately 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe, occupies 43 square miles of land in Northern New Mexico. Owned by the Department of Energy, Los Alamos has been managed by the University of California since 1943, when the Laboratory was born as part of the Manhattan Project to create the first atomic weapons during World War II. Allegations of espionage, from within Los Alamos National Laboratory, hit the headlines in March 1999 when scientist Wen Ho Lee was fired from the lab in New Mexico amid suspicions he passed classified information to China. He has not been charged with any crime, and through his lawyer he has denied providing nuclear secrets to China or anyone else. China has also denied spying or stealing U.S. nuclear secrets. (photo by Joe Raedle)
LOS ALAMOS, UNITED STATES: This 13 May 2000 file photo shows the US flag flying amid the highly secured Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The FBI is investigating the disappearance of two computer hard drives containing highly classified nuclear data stored in a high security vault at the lab. AFP PHOTO/FILES/Paul BUCK (Photo credit should read PAUL BUCK/AFP/Getty Images)
One of the most heavily guarded facilities, at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, is the Plutonium Facility. Razor wire and armed guards surround the place. Today, most of the nuclear materials activities at the Lab are carried out here. The complex chemistry associated with plutonium and other actinides in various physical states is examined using research and development in the fields of metallurgy, chemistry, engineering, and solid state physics. Allegations of espionage, from within Los Alamos National Laboratory, hit the headlines in March 1999 when scientist Wen Ho Lee was fired from the lab in New Mexico amid suspicions he passed classified information to China. He has not been charged with any crime, and through his lawyer he has denied providing nuclear secrets to China or anyone else. China has also denied spying or stealing U.S. nuclear secrets. (photo by Joe Raedle)
During WWII mail to Los Alamos residents was simply addressed to P.O. Box 1663, Sante Fe, New Mexico. When the Manhattan project's existence was made known to the outside world in 1945, the 'secret city' could use the Los Alamos post mark. The post office opened in it's present location in November, 1948. (photo by Joe Raedle)
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She works with actinium 225 or ac-225, one of a new class of radioactive therapies called alpha-emitting isotopes. It's unique because of its ability to destroy cancer without hurting healthy tissue.

The alpha particles emitted by ac-225 are relatively feeble, so they don't do much damage past the targeted area. Even a little healthy skin stops them dead. And its half-life is 10 days, meaning half of it's gone after 10 days, so it doesn't hang out in the body for long.

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"I think we're very hopeful that this will have tremendous impact for some cancers right now that really don't have highly effective treatments," Birnbaum said.

Early clinical trials have found that ac- 225 has the potential to treat leukemia, melanoma and other cancers, like those of the breast and the prostate.

But the issue that concerns cancer experts isn't whether actinium is promising. It's whether there's enough of the precious substance to use in clinical trials. The supply has been quite limited because it's so hard to produce.

The scientists at Los Alamos can use particle accelerators built to make nuclear products for weapons and energy generation to make ac-225 from another radioactive element called thorium.

"This project is aimed at making 50 times more material available than is available right now," said Kevin John, the project manager at Los Alamos.

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It takes Los Alamos' half-mile-long proton accelerator. The team starts with a disc of thorium, blasting it with the stream of protons. This knocks off the charged particles called isotopes — some of which are Ac-225 particles.

To use it for cancer therapy, scientists outside Los Alamos bind the isotope with an antibody — a human immune system protein engineered in the lab to find tumor cells. When injected into the body, it homes in on the targeted tumor and destroys the cancer.

"This is more focused radiation. It's more precise, and it allows for efficient killing of the targeted cell alone," said Joseph Jurcic, a hematologist and oncologist at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center.

Jurcic conducted some of the early clinical trials, and he's on the board of Actinium Pharmaceuticals, a company that's working to develop cancer treatments using ac-225.

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He said it can help people with smaller tumors or those that have metastasized. More research is needed before it can be approved.

And that research can now be done in large part thanks to the scientists at Los Alamos who are helping create a new type of weapon. This time, though, it's to fight cancer.

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Los Alamos turns its nuclear weapons power to war on cancer
GOOD MORNING AMERICA - Former GMA anchor Joan Lunden revealed that she is battling breast cancer on 'Good Morning America,' 6/24/14, airing on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Lou Rocco/ABC via Getty Images)
GOOD MORNING AMERICA - Sandra Lee talks about being cancer free, on GOOD MORNING AMERICA, 9/22/15, airing on the ABC Television Network. (Photo by Ida Mae AStute/ABC via Getty Images)
NEW YORK - MARCH 21: (FILE PHOTO) Actor Robert De Niro attends a news conference March 21, 2002 in New York City. According to a spokesman, De Niro, 60, was diagnosed with prostate cancer, but is expected to make a full recovery. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO -- Episode 1233 -- Pictured: (l-r) Musical guest Carly Simon performs on September 26, 1997 -- (Photo by: Margaret Norton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
BALDWIN, NY - OCTOBER 07: Actress Fran Drescher attends the Fourth Annual Breast Cancer Summit Honoring Fran Drescher at The Coral House on October 7, 2014 in Baldwin, New York. (Photo by Mike Pont/Getty Images)
Cynthia Nixon during T. Schreiber Studio and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society Honor Cynthia Nixon - Arrivals at 3 West Club in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Lawrence Lucier/FilmMagic)
LAS VEGAS - NOVEMBER 15: Rod Stewart performs at the Mandalay Bay Events Center for 'Rock for the Cure' at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino on November 15, 2007 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jacob Andrzejczak/Getty Images)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 28: Olivia Newton-John speaks to the media as she supports the Cancer & Wellness Centre by preparing to leading the way on a charitable walk at The Centre Ivanhoe on September 28, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia. The walk aims to raise funds for the wellness and supportive care programs provided to patients. (Photo by Robert Prezioso/Getty Images)
Edie Falco attends Super Saturday 13 to Benefit Ovarian Cancer Research Fund hosted by InStyle Magazine at Nova's Ark Project on July 31, 2010 in Water Mill, New York.
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