Radiation Injury: Protecting People on Earth and in Space

Ben Boulden

From the Earth to beyond the sky, UAMS College of Pharmacy scientists are searching for better ways to protect people from radiation injury.

A UAMS research team, led by Marjan Boerma, Ph.D., is investigating the effects of space radiation on cardiovascular health. One of the countermeasures against radiation injury in which the research team is interested is tocotrienol, in the vitamin E family.

Another team, led by Martin Hauer-Jensen, M.D., Ph.D., is working with experimental models testing a new drug, SOM230, to treat gastrointestinal injuries after radiological or nuclear accidents or terrorist attacks.

In Space

Boerma, associate professor in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences’ Division of Radiation Health, in 2014 was awarded a three-year $6 million grant by the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) as part of the newly formed Center for Space Radiation Research based at UAMS.

“We’re still working on setting up all the experimental models,” she said. “Radiation in space consists for a large part of a variety of charged particles. We’ve had some interesting discussions in the group and at NASA about how to best model the radiation that astronauts are exposed to in space.”

The question is complicated by whether an astronaut is exposed outside a space station or inside one. Another consideration is in regard to pure physics — the energy of the particles, how many are in the space environment being studied and what their effects are in combination with other particles and radiation.

Recently, collaborators at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California; Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.; and the University of Arizona in Tucson, Arizona, met at UAMS.

“We were able to talk through some of these challenges,” Boerma said. “We’re much closer to a consensus now.”

On Earth

Meanwhile, Hauer-Jensen’s research team is finishing up work with its experimental models.

“We’ve seen some survival benefit from this drug,” said Hauer-Jensen, associate dean for research and director of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences’ Division of Radiation Health. “Now, we’re assessing if the benefit is stronger whether you administer the drug before or after radiation exposure, and how long before or after.”

We also have been asked to look at it for prophylactic use by the military.
In the fall of 2013, UAMS signed two new contracts worth more than $8.5 million with the federal Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to proceed with advanced development of SOM230. Including a similar BARDA contract for $4.5 million entered into in 2011, the total value awarded is more than $13 million.

Novartis developed the SOM230 to treat hormone disorders known as Cushing’s disease and acromegaly.

The intestine and bone marrow are most susceptible to radiation because of their rapidly proliferating cells. Treatments exist for irradiated bone marrow but not for the intestine. Radiation damage to the intestine often determines whether a person lives or dies after exposure, Hauer-Jensen said.

“We also have been asked to look at it for prophylactic use by the military, by the Department of Defense,” Hauer-Jensen said.

BARDA is mainly interested in post-exposure and the military is more interested in the prophylactic administration of the drug.”

He said manuscripts are being prepared for scientific publication based on the findings of the study.