Monday, April 4, 2011

Treating Radiation Exposure

The nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan that was damaged last month by the tsunami continues to release radioactive materials into the atmosphere and the ocean. A few workers who were trying to stop the leaks have been exposed to excessive doses of radiation. Lots of folks are asking: How does radiation damage the body, and are there any drugs to combat radiation poisoning?

At the cellular level, excessive radiation exposure leads to the production of highly reactive oxygen species called free radicals. The free radicals damage DNA, leading to cell death. Rapidly-dividing cells such as those in the bone marrow and lining the digestive system tissues are the most affected. But death from radiation poisoning is usually due to multiple organ failures, making it difficult to treat.

So far there aren’t any truly effective drugs to treat radiation poisoning, though several are under development. The major pharmaceutical companies traditionally haven’t been interested in developing anti-radiation drugs because there isn’t supposed to be a market for them, aside from the rare nuclear accident. Perhaps in the wake of the accident in Japan, that attitude will change.

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