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BARDA's $60M plan to protect against radiation poisoning

by Brendon Nafziger, DOTmed News Associate Editor | September 30, 2011
Federal officials announced they were funding the development of five drugs designed to protect people from the horrors of radiation poisoning. The government's also financing studies to develop an improved version of another drug to treat people exposed to radioactive particles that could be released during a so-called dirty bomb attack.

Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, announced the roughly $60 million in funding in a series of releases Wednesday and Thursday.

About $56.3 million will go toward five contracts for a variety of drug companies and scientists working on countermeasures for acute radiation syndrome, or radiation sickness. When exposed to high doses of ionizing radiation -- such as from a nuclear bomb blast -- fast-reproducing cells in the gut, bone marrow, and lungs can be destroyed, which can in turn lead to internal bleeding, a depressed immune system and death over the following days or even weeks.

Winners of contracts include Neumedicines Inc., which got a $17 million award to study recombinant human interleukin-12 (rhuIL-12). Also called HemaMax, a 2008 BARDA-funded study showed it might be able to protect bone marrow from radiation.

Johnson City, Tenn.-based RxBio Inc. nabbed a two-year, $15 million contract to study Rx100, a small molecule-drug which might be able to prevent cells in the gut from dying if administered up to three days after radiation exposure. As with many of these radioprotectants under investigation, the company also said the proprietary substance -- which it says can be stored at room temperature and has a long shelf-life -- could help reduce GI chemotherapy side effects.

University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences also got a contract to research a drug, SOM230 or pasireotide, to protect the gut from radiation. The two-year, $4.5 million contract covers research on the substance, an analog of the hormone somatostatin, which was developed by pharama giant Novartis to treat various endrocrine tumors and Cushing's disease, a condition caused by the body's over-production of cortisol. The university researchers will try to provide results that Novartis can use to submit a Food and Drug Administration application for the drug, which apparently works by preventing pancreatic secretions that inflame the intestines.

Under a two-year, $3.1 million contract, Araim Pharmaceuticals, an Ossining, N.Y.-based biotech startup, will see if its drug, ARA 290, could help save lives up to 24 hours after radiation exposure. In tests on animals, the substance, which mimics a hormone found in the body and prevents cell death and inflammation, was found to protect against lethal doses of radiation, as well as to speed up wound healing, reduce brain, kidney and heart injuries from trauma or disease, and even improve learning.

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