April 15, 2011

Stored Blood Cells Could Save Japan Nuclear Workers

In case of exposure to life-threatening levels of radiation, health officials are being urged to collect blood from workers at the Fukushima nuclear plant, Japanese doctors said in letters published by the medical journal, The Lancet.

"The danger of a future accidental radiation exposure is not passed," the doctors wrote.

The disaster on March 11 caused by the earthquake and tsunami has plant workers struggling to control radiation leakage from the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. With continued aftershocks into April, workers are in extremely dangerous conditions that involve removing irradiated water from the site and trying to cool overheated fuel in three crippled reactors, AFP reports experts saying.

Some areas of the complex have high radiation levels that experts say will most likely take years to clean up, and this poses a risk of accidental exposure to workers.

Plant workers face a possibility of being exposed to high levels of radiation that can lead to bone marrow being damaged or destroyed years later, which can cause fatal diseases such as leukemia. Leukemia is treatable with stem cell transplants.

The transplant treatment requires storing autologous peripheral blood stem cells (PBSCs) which are immature cells that differentiate into blood cells, reports AFP.

Cancer treatments often use PBSC transplants to help boost depleted blood cell counts for patients who have had radiotherapy to destroy a tumor.

Cancer specialist at four Japanese hospitals argued that it would make sense to store blood from the hundreds of workers battling to save the nuclear plant from catastrophe.

There are several advantages to collected stem cells from workers instead of using donated cells, researchers say.

For one thing, donor cells require finding a match and this could carry the risk of rejection.

In addition, by transplanting cells from a person's own supply, the workers would avoid having to take drugs that suppress the immune system, in turn helping them to better resist infections, reports Reuters.

However, the doctors admit that the cell transplants would not work in all cases. With high exposure to radiation, there is a chance that cells in the gut, skin or lung could be attacked, which cannot be treated with the stem cell transplant.

AFP reports that Japan's nuclear industry is resistant to store the workers' stem cells, fearing that it could affect its reputation. Some experts also believe that the storing of stem cell poses an undue physical and psychological burden on nuclear workers.

"The most important mission is to save the nuclear workers' lives and to protect the local communities," the doctors wrote.

"Such an approach would be the industry's best defense: if a fatal accident happened to the nuclear workers, the nuclear power industry of Japan would collapse," they wrote.

The researchers say that nearly 107 transplant teams are standing by to handle the cell transplants and more than 50 hospitals in Europe have agreed to assist if needed.


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