A Do-or-Die Supply Chain For Theragenics, timing is critical as it races its cancer-killing "seeds" to the hospital.
By Justin Martin

(Business 2.0) – With the possible exception of fine wine or a Rolls-Royce, products start depreciating the moment they're sold. But at Theragenics--a Buford, Ga., company that makes implantable, radioactive "seeds" used to treat prostate cancer--the rapid decline begins the minute they are made. The company's Theraseeds, which contain the isotope palladium-103, are designed to deliver a precise dose of radioactivity, but the seeds shed 4 percent of their potency each day. If they aren't made just right, or don't arrive exactly when needed, they're worthless--and the company swallows the entire cost, as much as $7,500 per order. "We are slaves to the clock," says CEO Christine Jacobs. So Theragenics runs a factory that makes an Indy 500 pit crew look downright lazy. Here's how it wins a constant battle against time.

1. Automated logistics. Prostate surgery is usually a scheduled procedure, so Theragenics knows how many seeds will be needed when. As an order comes in, custom-tailored logistics software created by Empiric Design of Suwanee, Ga., generates a 28-step manufacturing schedule. Factoring in the daily 4 percent decay rate, the software calculates backward from the radiation required at surgery to determine when the seeds should be made.

2. Precision manufacturing. The quality of rhodium, the $500-per-troy-ounce metal that Theragenics converts into the palladium-103 isotope, varies widely. So staff physicists must recalibrate the 14 cyclotrons--miniature particle accelerators, really--before each batch is bombarded with protons. Cots are kept nearby for the scientists to use if they must work several consecutive shifts to make the deadline.

3. Extreme quality control. Because the treatment depends on a precise dosage, Theragenics can't get by with a few random-sample quality checks. Instead, each seed, the size of a grain of uncooked rice, is subjected to 28 tests, including an exacting measurement of the radiation. The seeds are then packed into lead containers called pigs, which weigh as much as 10 pounds, and sent by FedEx. -- JUSTIN MARTIN