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Gov't Tests Drug That Could Stop Slow Death from Radiation Poisoning

by Brendon Nafziger, DOTmed News Associate Editor | May 06, 2010
The National Institutes
of Health and the
National Institute of
Allergy and
Infectious Disease
A drug that could serve as a countermeasure to radiation poisoning and prevent gruesome, lingering deaths in the weeks following a nuclear bomb blast or power plant accident entered a second round of government-sponsored trials this week.

The National Institutes of Health and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease are running a follow-up study on Aeolus Pharmaceuticals' drug that could protect against the fatal complications of extreme radiation exposure, known as acute radiation sickness, such as injury to the gut and lungs.

The Mission Viejo, Calif.-based Aeolus claims its drug AEOL 10150 could stop the widespread death of epithelial cells in the intestines caused by high-powered blasts of radiation. The condition, sometimes called "slick gut" because the body can't hold anything inside the digestive system, results in severe diarrhea and death several weeks after radiation exposure. Experts believe it is one of the main causes of death following extreme irradiation.

"When they go back and look at people who were exposed at Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Chernobyl, a lot of people who died later died from GI and lung [damage]," John McManus, CEO of Aeolus, told DOTmed News.

STAGES OF DEATH

The drug is being studied under the Medical Countermeasures against Radiological and Nuclear Threats program set up by the NIH and NIAID to find a means to protect those who survive a major terrorist or military attack.

Imagine: a shipping container bearing a crudely made nuclear weapon in a busy port explodes, showering the nearby area with radioactive dust. Thousands of people not instantly killed by the blast will succumb weeks or months later to the after-effects of radiation sickness.

The after-effects come in around three "waves," according to McManus. Those closest to the blast enduring massive full-body radiation exposure can fall to what's known as hematopoietic, or blood, syndrome. In this first wave, the radiation causes so many of the blood stem cells in the bone marrow to perish, that the body is unable to replenish the blood supply, and the person dies.

People who survive this stage because they were partly shielded from the blast by furniture or building material, could then suffer from the "slick gut," if their GI tract was exposed. From this, they'll die within two to six weeks if untreated, according to McManus.

And even if they live through that, they're still not out of the woods. Within 60 to 120 days, the person can develop pneumonitis, or inflammation of the lungs. Fluid build-up can result in scarring of the lungs, or fibrosis. This can make it impossible to breathe, with the symptoms often resembling those caused by interstitial pulmonary fibrosis, McManus said, which can also be fatal.