Radiation Exposure: Rice Compound Provides Natural Protection

Nate Hinkel

What do rice, radiological emergencies and cancer treatment all have in common?

However odd the combo seems, there’s no punch line to this query. The very serious answer lies in the astonishing results of years of intense study done by researchers in the UAMS College of Pharmacy’s Division of Radiation Health, led by world-renowned radiation injury expert Martin Hauer-Jensen, M.D., Ph.D.

“What we’ve found is that there’s a compound derived from rice that is the most potent radio-protector ever discovered from a natural product,” said Hauer-Jensen, who has detailed his work in national and international media interviews and publications. “And it just so happens that we’re in the rice bowl of America and well situated to take advantage of that.”

Rice bran is one of the richest sources of tocols, which are potent antioxidants that have many other important biological properties. A major property of tocols is the ability to protect against the adverse effects of ionizing radiation. Hauer-Jensen, along with Sree Kumar, M.D., at the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute in Bethesda, Md., found that one of rice’s eight naturally occurring tocols, called gamma-tocotrienol (GT3), if administered 12-to-24 hours before exposure, can provide 100 percent protection against a radiation dose that would otherwise be 100 percent fatal.

“That is the highest degree of protection demonstrated for any natural compound that’s been discovered so far,” Hauer-Jensen said.

While the immediate application of Hauer-Jensen’s research lies in soothing the fears of radiation exposure following a large-scale radiological or nuclear disaster or attack, GT3 has many other uses.

The number of cancer survivors in America has increased dramatically during the last 30 years. But so has the number of patients experiencing secondary problems stemming from radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Cancer patients, particularly those undergoing radiation therapy and struggling with side effects, could see those troubles greatly diminished.

Developing Division

Dr. Haurer-Jensen

Martin Hauer-Jensen, M.D., Ph.D., says rice holds the key to protection from radiation exposure.

While Hauer-Jensen’s discovery related to GT3 is very promising and moving toward clinical trials, much more research is needed to address cancer treatment possibilities.

The UAMS College of Pharmacy’s Division of Radiation Health is headed in that direction.

Hauer-Jensen began as a surgical oncologist in his native Norway and has spent the last 23 years at UAMS as both a surgeon and researcher. He transitioned fully to radiation research to lead the division in 2008. And what began as a one-man effort now has more than 30 faculty and staff and generates more than $7 million in external funding annually.

Along with the 2010 addition of Daohong Zhou, M.D., another world-renowned radiation researcher and drug developer, and Marjan Boerma, Ph.D., Snehalata Pawar, Ph.D. and Nukhet Aykin-Burns, Ph.D., Hauer-Jensen is excited about the very recent recruitment of Antino Allen, Ph.D., a neuroscientist from the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine. Allen “presents big opportunities to investigate the effects of radiation and chemotherapy on cognition and memory,” Hauer-Jensen said.

“The division here is a concept that’s totally unique in medicine with this approach to cancer treatment from a radiation health perspective,” Hauer-Jensen said. “A lot of places mainly look at treating tumors with radiation. We, on the other hand, strive to make cancer therapy safer and more effective while focusing not only on today’s cancer patients, but also on tomorrow’s cancer survivors.”