Saturday, February 13, 2010

Tissue Repository

Every year I've been to Radcon, I've been offered a chance to go on a tour to a facility of scientific importance. This year I went to a tissue repository where a team of international scientists are studying radiation in the human body.

I think one of the most important things I learned was how much we don't know about radiation and its effects on the human body. Some very dedicated people, in spite of difficulty obtaining proper funding, are trying to determine basic information like what it means to get a certain dose of radiation. Radiation exposure isn't like walking through a room filled with flour and you get some on and inside of you. Science is acquainted with things like the amount of energy emitted by a given amount of radioactive material, and has some information about where various kinds of materials 'like' to deposit in the body, but I got the distinct impression that not very much is known at all about what that means in the long term.

Some people are aware that radioactive substances and radiation are part of our natural environment. A few people are even aware that life developed on this planet during a time when there was a lot more natural radiation flying around. I don't think that many people know that cancer rates are higher for people who live in areas that have very little local radiation, though if you think about it, cancer cell sensitivity to radiation makes this a natural conclusion. If you have a single cell of cancer form in your body and the local natural radiation takes it out before it can divide, well, you don't develop that cancer. So what's a good amount of radioactivity to be around? Funding is required to investigate. What if your friend Bob got exposed to radiation while helping clean out the debris from a really old toy or watch factory when he accidentally knocked over an old, unmarked container of radium? What kind of long term risks can he expect? No one knows.
It's not all about funding. In order to study radiation in the human body, these research facilities need folks who have been exposed to radiation to donate their bodies to the project. Some people might think that after radiation exposure, people just keel over very quickly from cancer and then their bodies can be studied. In reality, most of the people the project studies die from some other cause, like heart disease. Now, it may be that there is an increased risk of heart disease after radiation exposure, but they don't know. They'd need funding and subjects to study in order to find out. Either way, folks tend to live long lives seemingly unaffected by their exposure (with the exception of people with really high exposures from serious accidents, as have happened in Russia and Japan.) The number of people who have been exposed to radiation in the workplace are relatively few, and they have to renew their commitment to donate to the project on a frequent basis, so that's also a limiting factor. Having said that, a remarkable number of people have come forward to further this research, people I personally felt very grateful toward. Theirs isn't a small gesture--and the scientists treated the remains throughout ever stage of inquiry, including when we toured the building--with respect. There doesn't seem to be much breakdown on that side of the equation. It seemed to me that, overall, the project had far more issue with grant money than anything else.

Anyway, they're trying to study stuff that is of extreme importance. Whether we need to use this information should there be a dirty bomb attack somewhere in the world, or to help ensure the health and safety of power plant workers, or suggest better ways to treat cancer through radiation, or to answer questions most of us don't even think about, this isn't some idle point of scientific curiosity. I hope they get better funding soon, in the interest of furthering medicine.

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