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July 23, 2019 | Tom Ballard

PART 2: Carmen Bigles clearly not afraid to take on a big, big challenge

(EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the final article in a two-part series focused on Carmen Bigles and her plans to build the nation’s first facility to produce medical radioisotopes in Oak Ridge. Consolidated Nuclear Security, managing contractor for the Y-12 National Security Complex, has posted this video about its work with Coqui.)

By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

An interview with Carmen Bigles starts-off on a low key, but it quickly reaches a new level as she talks passionately and animatedly about her plans to open the nation’s only source for medical radioisotope, Mo-99, in Oak Ridge by 2025.

As noted in the first article in the series, the Puerto Rico native spent three days in the nation’s capital exploring the possibility of addressing the challenge of ensuring the U.S. had a reliable, scalable, domestic source for the isotopes that are needed for diagnostic and treatment procedures.

Weeks after those meetings, Bigles willingly accepted the herculean challenge and founded Coquí RadioPharmaceuticals. “It’s an intense, beautiful company focused on saving lives,” she told us in a recent interview.

Noting that she is not an expert in nuclear medicine, Bigles first explored the feasibility of building the facility in her native Puerto Rico. Those plans were quickly dismissed, and the possible locations shifted to three states – Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee.

“The first site that I was offered was Duct Island in 2010 or 2011,” she said. The island is part of the old K-25 gaseous diffusion site, now known as the Heritage Center, and the offer came from Kim Denton, then President and Chief Executive Officer of the Oak Ridge Economic Partnership.

“Tennessee . . . that’s so far away,” Bigles thought. Two incumbent Governors – Rick Scott (Florida) and Bobby Jindal (Louisiana) – called with offers, and Bigles ultimately settled on 40 acres near the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Yet, that was obviously not the end of the story.

“I was invited to ORNL (Oak Ridge National Laboratory) to make a summer presentation,” Bigles said. As she drove from the Knoxville airport to ORNL, she thought, “It’s so peaceful here. This is really where I need to be. Everybody (here) understands me; they speak the same language.”

As many may recall, ORNL, then known as Clinton Laboratories, sent the first official shipment of a medical radioisotope, in this case Carbon-14, to Barnard Free Skin and Cancer Hospital in St. Louis in 1946. That established what is now a more than 60-year history in the isotope scientific space.

So, in October 2016, Coquí Pharma announced that it was shifting its construction plans from Florida to Oak Ridge. Two years after making the decision, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) approved the transfer of the Duct Island site to the company. That decision was announced in April as noted in this article.

The DOE support also is funding research projects underway at both ORNL and the Y-12 National Security Complex that focus on a number of areas.

“This could not be a better place for the company to be,” Bigles said. She even has a big vision for the region – a nuclear medicine center of excellence.

For the mother of two teenagers who lives in Coral Gables, FL but visits the region at least once a month, it’s clearly a cause.

“When you walk with people who are dying,” Bigles says, and then pauses before adding, “There’s no stopping me. My husband taught me the importance of really being alive. Respect life, respect people. I love life. God is the key; faith is the key.”

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