Efforts to Cure Radiation Sickness

Meghana Golla
March 15, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016

Background on Radiation Sickness

Radiation sickness is caused by the excessive exposure to ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation can be found in medical testing and treatment, industrial and manufacturing, weapons, and weapons development. The severity of the illnesss depends on the type and amount of radiation, length of exposure, and body types exposed. [2] High doses of radiation ruptures DNA strands and alters the rhytms of cell division. [5] Symptoms of radiation sickness include: bleeding from the nose or mouth or gums, bloody stool, bruising, dehydration, confusion, diarrhea, fainting, fatigue, fever, hair loss, inflammation, mouth ulcers, nausea and vomiting, open sores, skin burns, sloughing of skin, gastrointestinal ulcers, vomiting of blood, and uclers. [2] Unfortunately, treatment options for radiation are very limited and an acute dose of radiation (10 Gy or greater) is usually fatal. [5]

Treatments Currently Used

There are multiple treatments to reduce internal contamination. Protein-based medication and blood transfusions are used to treat damaged bone marrow. Granulocyte colony-stimulating factor is a promoter of white blood cell growth. This protein medication is combined with filgrastim (Neupogen), sargramostim (Leukine), and pegrilgrastim (Neulasta) to treat radiation sickness in the bone marrow. [5]

Other treatments for internal organ damage are specific to different types of radiation. Potassium iodide is used when the body is contaminated with radioactive iodine. Potassium iodide fills "vacancies" and competitively prevents absorption of the radioactive iodine. Prussian blue is a dye that binds radioactive cesium. The binded particles are then excreted in feces. The Prussian blue treatment expedites the elimination process, minimizing the radiation absorbed by cells. Zinc- and calcium-diethylenetriamine pentaacetic acid (DTPA) binds to radioactive elements of plutonium, americium, and curium. DTPA similarly expedites the elimination of these elements through the urine. [5]

Treatments In Development

Chelating agents bind to toxic metal ions, forming complex structures that are then easily excreted from the body. [4] Chemist Rebecca Abergel at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has manipulated chelators to create molecules that bind to actinides (a group of radioactive elements at the bottom of the periodic table), forming stable complexes that body expels more easily. Ideally their aim to deliver the chelators via a single pill. [1]

In March 2016, Israeli Biotech firm Pluristem Therapeutics announced that it developed a placenta- based cell therapy injection that can cure patients in multi-organ failure caused by radiation exposure. They harvested cells grown from donated placentas to create a mixture of therapeutic proteins aimed at combatting radiation damage to the lungs, skin, bone marrow and gastrointestinal tract. Clinical trials have shown success with radiation levels that typically cause up to 70% mortality rates, with optimal results when the treatment is injected within 48 hours of exposure. Company officials stated that they aimed for the product to be off-the shelf and easy to use. [3]

There are many exciting developments in the field of radiation sickness treatments. The goal is to develop a biological defense for any radiation event that may occur in the world, whether that be a terror attack of nuclear melting. [3]

© Meghana Golla. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. J. Abergel et al., "Biomimetic Actinide Chelators: An Update on the Preclinical Development of the Orally Active Hydroxypyridonate Decorporation Agents 3,4,3-Li (1,2-HOPO) and 5-LiO (Me-3,2-HOPO)," Health Phys. 99, 401 (2010).

[2] C. H. Schultz and K. L. Koenig, "Weapons of Mass Destruction," in Rosen's Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 8th Ed., ed. by J. A. Marx, R. S. Hockberger, and R. M. Walls (Saunders, 2013), Ch. 194, p. 2469.

[3] E. Ringler, "Israeli Placental Cell Therapy Could Cure Radiation Sickness," Reuters, 9 Mar 16.

[4] S. J. S. Flora and V. Pachauri, "Chelation in Metal Intoxication," Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 7, 2745 (2010).

[5] G. C. Benjamin, M. McGearay and S. R. McCutchen, Eds., Assessing Medical Preparedness to Respond to a Terrorist Nuclear Event (National Academies Press, 2009).