Many of you may have gotten a small taste of what happens to people when exposed to radiation from HBO’s dramatic new show, Chernobyl.
It’s gruesome and painful to say the least, and often life-threatening. And while watching, I couldn’t help but wonder: if Chernobyl had happened today, over 30 years later, how would we treat people suffering from radiation poisoning? What people experience when exposed to high doses of radiation is called Acute Radiation Syndrome, also known as radiation sickness or radiation poisoning.
In other articles, we’ve covered in more detail what happens to your body when you get radiation sickness?
The kind of radiation that we’re talking about is called ionizing radiation, meaning the particles doing the damage have enough energy that when they react with other atoms, they can remove electrons from that atom, causing it to become charged or ionized.
As you can imagine, this is quite a problem when those atoms are in your body. Changing the fundamental nature of an atom in your biological tissue, like making it charged when it wasn’t before, can seriously mess up parts of your cells so they don’t function properly, including your DNA.
These newly created ions can also interact with other molecules that naturally exist in your body to create toxic substances, like hydrogen peroxide, which can also destroy cells.
Cells that replicate faster than others in your body are much more susceptible to radiation because as they divide more, their DNA is more exposed.
So tissues that regenerate more often, like your bone marrow and your gastrointestinal tract and your skin, are where you see the most acute effects of radiation poisoning, with symptoms like nausea, vomiting, skin falling off, etc.
So how do we treat it?
Once you’ve been exposed to a high radiation dose, what can we do?
We start pretty primitively, but those exposed to poisonous doses of radiation, even low ones, should immediately remove clothes and outerwear that have been exposed to and have absorbed the radiation, to eliminate contact with that now radioactive material.
Those exposed also need to wash radioactive material off their bodies and out of any wounds, and this can be done using something called a chelating agent, or a substance that binds to radioactive compounds so that when you rinse, they’re picked up off your skin and removed.
Another relatively simple remedy that’s been around for a long time is called Prussian Blue, an iron cyanide pigment compound that when ingested, binds to radioactive isotopes and keeps them from being absorbed by your body. Then it just exits your body as waste.
Potassium Iodide is also a more classic treatment. It’s a stable salt, and again, binds to radioactive compounds, particularly radioactive iodine, to keep it from damaging your thyroid—which is incredibly important because your thyroid is an essential gland that regulates some of your most important bodily processes, like your metabolic system.
And thyroid damage and cancer were some of the many conditions experienced by those exposed to Chernobyl’s radiation.
And the other treatments for radiation poisoning that we had back in Chernobyl’s day were palliative: treating the symptoms and supporting vital functions as your body either recovered or didn’t.
For example, impaired bone function due to radiation means less blood cells and decreased immunity, so treatment for that includes blood transfusions and antibiotics to fight off any potential infection.
But a significant update to this treatment are white blood cell stimulating medications to make your bone marrow produce more of the cells it’s supposed to.
And luckily, we’ve made several developments like this since the Chernobyl days to make radiation poisoning treatment more effective.
For example, a team in China recently created a new actinide decorporation agent.
That means taking a harmful radioactive compound—an actinide—that’s been deposited in your bones and organs and removing it.
Decorporation agents like this have actually been around since the 50’s, and potassium iodide and Prussian blue are technically decorporation agents as well, but many teams around the world are working on making new ones.
We want them to be more effective, work faster, and be safer to use and this most recent development has a record high removal rate of uranium isotopes in organs and bones, while having low toxicity itself.
This promising new technique is just in animal trials right now, but is representative of a whole community that’s working on new ways to remove radiation from the human body.
The entire family of decorporation agents, old and new, is joined by other new kinds of drugs, many repurposed from other medical applications—like increasing blood flow and reducing inflammation for other conditions—and their properties work to protect tissues from further damage, while decorporation agents can whisk the damaging compounds away.
TP508, for example, was developed for the treatment of severe diabetes symptoms, but it’s shown to be effective in preventing the destruction of intestinal cells in those with radiation poisoning, while also increasing the rate of cell repair. At the very least, this buys doctors more time as they treat those exposed to extreme radiation.
And even though we’ve been talking about short-term treatments for acute radiation poisoning, modern medicine, especially advances in genetics and more personalized treatments, will hopefully also make a huge difference in the treatment—and perhaps—prevention of the more long-term effects of radiation exposure, like radiation-induced cancers.
Research like this is incredibly important not only for victims of nuclear disasters, but also for people every day dealing with side effects of radiation treatments for various illnesses.
If Chernobyl were to happen today, we would have some new treatments to try, but hopefully medicine will continue to make strides like
this to make complete cure of radiation sickness a reality.