Quick blood test can triage radiation exposure victims, saving lives

In the rare, but serious, cases of a radiation leak like the Fukushima nuclear plant's meltdown, first responders are tasked with sending radiation victims to triage based on their level of exposure. A new genetics-based blood test could be a faster, more accurate way to assess how individual victims will respond to radiation. Researchers from Harvard Medical School and New York City's Montefiore Medical Center have created a method of identifying long-term damage from radiation, immediately. Their technique involved looking beyond blood cell counts and delving into blood-bound genes.

It is nearly impossible to assess radiation exposure just by eyeballing the victims. Some of radiation's more visible effects don't set in until 24 hours after exposure, but the window for proper care begins to dwindle directly after exposure. Even an early blood test can only indicate the amount of dead white blood cells, which could look the same in fatal and severe–but survivable– cases.

The scientific paper published in the journal, Science Translational Medicine, details their discovery, first made using mice. They found that free-floating clumps of genetic material, microRNA can signal how much damage will be done to the body by a dose of radiation, with genetics determining a baseline for how much radiation someone can withstand and still survive.

There are still some roadblocks to developing this test for humans. Money talks when it comes to drug development, and there isn't much money to be made from emergency radiation testing. Researcher Dipanjan Chowdhury concedes, "unlike developing cancer drugs, this is not an area that's considered very lucrative." Perhaps if the testing could be applied to predict how cancer patients would respond to radiation therapy, the discovery could become commonplace alongside chemotherapy.

Source: Popular Mechanics