Washington University makes strides in radiation treatment

Published 10 May 2007

Unlike previous efforts, protein-based agents shield cells from damage before and after exposure

Soon after the Chernobyl disaster, a number of physicians and scientists both in Russia and the United States offered various treatments to counteract the effects of high levels of radiation exposure. None of these were very effective; most were inert or worse. Fortunately, scientists have made some strides since then, all the more so since 9/11. Take for one example efforts currently underway at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, where scientists have developed an agent that protects cells from the lethal effects of radiation, regardless of whether it is given before or after exposure. Using this agent in mice, the investigators found that the treatment helped shield the rapidly dividing cells that are most vulnerable to radiation-induced death, providing proof in principle that it is possible to fend off radiation damage.

We are using an entirely different approach,” says professor Clayton Hunt. “Rather than ramp up the production of blood cells” — the traditional treatment approach — “we are trying to prevent radiation-induced cell death from occurring in the first place.” The researchers developed the agent by attaching a portion of a protein already known to block cell death to another that swiftly carry other molecules into cells. Working with mice, they found the treatment helped protect rapidly dividing T cells and B cells in the spleen — immune system cells that are prone to radiation damage — whether it was given thirty minutes before radiation exposure or thirty minutes afterward. (Follow-up studies showed a possible broader window of one hour.) “This gives us a window of opportunity to treat patients and still prevent cells from undergoing programmed cell death,” said Dr. Richard Hotchkiss. “We have a lot more work to do, but we are encouraged by these early findings.”