Healing the Heroes

How stem-cell transplants could help Fukushima plant workers

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    On April 16, Dr. Shuichi Taniguchi, an expert in blood disorders, met with a few dozen of the workers who are attempting to contain the ailing Fukushima nuclear plant. These workers are widely recognized as being in greatest danger of developing radiation-based illnesses due to their risk of exposure to radioactive material such as iodide and cesium. So Taniguchi and his colleagues had an unusual offer for the members of the group: Would they be willing to have their blood stem cells harvested and stored?

    The inspiration for the request comes from the success of bone-marrow transplants, which are often used to treat people with blood cancers. The diseased bone-marrow cells are obliterated with chemo or radiation, then replaced with a healthy, tumor-free population of blood and immune stem cells. Because radioactive material tends to target rapidly dividing cells like those in the blood, Fukushima's workers may well benefit from similar transplants. But in this case, rather than extracting bone marrow, as doctors do when treating cancer patients, doctors would give volunteers an agent that draws blood stem cells from the marrow into the circulating bloodstream for collection. Taniguchi and his team believe that having a supply of the workers' blood stem cells on hand makes sense in case of accidental radiation overexposure. And because the employees would donate cells to themselves, there would be less chance of rejection. More than 100 transplant teams in Japan agree and are willing to collect and store the cells of workers who are interested in participating.

    Still, it's not a routine way of treating radiation exposure. Citing the lack of scientific evidence for the success of the controversial proposal, the Japanese government has backed off supporting it. But given the threats that the Fukushima employees are facing, says Taniguchi, "as a risk-management procedure, collecting and storing one's own blood stem cells should be worth considering."