New Treatment May Prevent Deadly Radiation Sickness

Nuclear Cooling Towers
Nuclear Cooling Towers (Image credit: Orion Montoya)

Radiation sickness has haunted humanity since the atomic bombs dropped, killed entire teams of firefighters at the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster and worries workers trying to fix the Fukushima reactor in Japan. But certain death from a high dose of radiation may finally vanish with a stem cell-based cellular treatment that protects the human body when it is most defenseless.

Such a therapy might even work up to several days after exposure to dangerous levels of radiation, according to Ram Mandalam, president and CEO of Cellerant Therapeutics. His company has a U.S. government contract worth up to $153.2 million to develop the treatment known as CLT-008.

"It could be given three to five days post-exposure and help with survival," Mandalam said. "That's important in cases such as what's happening in Japan, where people may not learn the level [of radiation] they have been exposed to until 24 to 48 hours later."

About 50 to 100 Japanese workers risked radiation and explosions to prevent complete meltdown of nuclear reactors at the Fukushima plant. The workers wore heavy protective suits and rotated in and out to minimize exposure.

Japanese authorities also handed potassium iodide pills to citizens as a preventive measure against radioactive iodine — just one of several radioactive materials that can be released in nuclear plant disasters. But no current treatment exists for radiation sickness, which is also known as acute radiation syndrome.

CLT-008 could become the first such treatment. It deploys precursor cells derived from adult stem cells that can mature into platelets, red blood cells and certain white blood cells. The latter provide a crucial line of defense in the body's immune system for fighting off infections from bacteria and fungi.

That matters because infections are what often end up killing victims of radiation sickness. High radiation doses destroy the bone marrow that produces white blood cells and leave the victim with virtually no immune system — unless he or she can get a temporary defensive boost from an outside source.

"Most products being built as countermeasures [for radiation] will try to prevent the death of a person's own cells," Mandalam told InnovationNewsDaily. "In our case, we have a product that provides cells to the person independent of the person's own cells."

Cellerant Therapeutics first considered CLT-008 as a way to boost the immune system of patients who receive radiation as part of chemotherapy for cancer. But the biotech company soon found that the treatment worked well enough in its two Phase I clinical safety trials to possibly defend against higher levels of radiation.

The realization led to preclinical studies with animals that showed how CLT-008 could still provide protection days after the first radiation exposure. If all goes well, Mandalam expects to have enough trial data to begin looking at getting approval from the Food and Drug Administration in about five years.

The company's current contract came from the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), a federal agency that manages Project BioShield and looks to develop medical countermeasures for biological, chemical and nuclear dangers.

This story was provided by InnovationNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience.

Jeremy Hsu
Jeremy has written for publications such as Popular Science, Scientific American Mind and Reader's Digest Asia. He obtained his masters degree in science journalism from New York University, and completed his undergraduate education in the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.