Fighting Fallout Drug Promises Fix for Radiation Poisoning

Dirty bombs are one of the biggest threats to the world's urban populations. Now an American molecular biologist has developed a drug that may protect against the effects of radioactivity. Military officials are thrilled, and the discoverers could make billions.

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On Friday afternoons, as the Sabbath approaches and the sun hangs low in the sky over the Mediterranean, the Restaurant Turquoise north of Tel Aviv is a carefree oasis. Every seat in the place is taken, and the crowd is in high spirits.

Only one patron, Yacov Reizman, seems serious as he glances at a stack of documents -- a study recently published by the United States Department of Homeland Security -- on the table in front of him. Using a hypothetical scenario, the study describes the medical consequences of a terrorist attack involving a radioactive bomb in a major American city. It concludes that tens of thousands would be killed immediately, while hundreds of thousands more would sustain fatal injuries through the resulting radioactive fallout.

The results would be even more dramatic, says Reizman, in a small country like Israel, where practically the entire population would be affected within only a few hours.

But Reizman, a former fighter pilot in the Israeli air force, claims to have a miracle weapon against such nuclear catastrophes. He has invested in Cleveland Biolabs, a Nasdaq company that has developed a drug that is designed to protect people against the often deadly consequences of nuclear radiation.

According to Reizman, a simple injection is all it takes. A few days ago, the New York businessman returned to his native country to present his invention to Israeli security officials.

Until now, doctors have felt largely helpless when it comes to treating so-called radiation sickness. Ionizing radiation destroys the building blocks of cells, leading directly to cell death. It can also produce changes in genetic material, which are passed on during subsequent cell division, contributing to the development of cancers. Medicine has offered virtually no protection against nuclear radiation until now, except in the form of iodine tablets, which merely prevent radioactive iodine from accumulating in the thyroid gland.

The effects of CBLB502, discovered by the American molecular geneticist Andrei Gudkov, are believed to be far more comprehensive. The agent consists of a protein derived from salmonella bacteria. The bacterial protein attaches itself to the receptor on a radiation-damaged cell, which would normally activate the immune system.

This in turn inhibits the damaged cell's suicide program, known as apoptosis, which would normally be activated to prevent the damaged cell from harming the rest of the body. The inhibition of apoptosis gives the cell time to initiate repair mechanisms, the same trick a tumor cell uses to survive in the human body despite its pathological mutation.

Approval in Two Years' Time

Gudkov successfully tested the drug in mice and rhesus monkeys, and he has already published the results in the American scientific journal Science. The monkeys were exposed to doses of radiation comparable to the levels people were exposed to after the 1986 Chernobyl reactor disaster. In the experiment, 70 percent of the monkeys that were not given the drug died. But of those that were treated before radiation exposure, more than 60 percent survived. The drug was even successful when it was injected 72 hours after radiation exposure.

This would make it particularly well-suited for use after radioactive attacks and accidents. Western intelligence agencies have long warned of the dangers of a "dirty" bomb, that is, an explosive device containing radioactive material. To address the threat, the Pentagon and US health authorities have already invested $40 million (€28 million) in the development of the anti-radiation drug.

CBLB502 could also be used in cancer therapy, because it would enable tumor patients to cope more easily with radiation treatment. This, in turn, would increase the efficacy of treatment in severe cases.

Approval of the drug is expected in the United States in two years' time. Meanwhile, radiation experts in Germany are also keeping a close eye on testing. A spokesman for the Federal Institute for Drugs and Medical Devices calls it a "completely new approach," but adds that the drug must first be tested in human subjects before it can be considered for approval in Germany. In fact, no one knows the extent to which the results from the monkey experiments are transferable.

Reizman and his business partners want to see countries like the United States and Israel establish adequate stockpiles for their populations. They expect the drug to generate annual sales of up to $500 million worldwide.

Cleveland Biolabs expects to sell 2 million doses to the US military alone.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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