$25 million NIH grant funds new technologies for rapid mass screening of radiation exposure

September 09, 2005

Columbia University Medical Center has been awarded a major grant of $25 million to lead a consortium developing new technologies to rapidly screen large numbers of people for radiation exposure in the event of a terrorist attack on a nuclear facility or the detonation of a radiological "dirty bomb".

Over five years, the team will develop new devices that can assess, within a few days of a potentially catastrophic radiological incident, the radiation doses received by hundreds of thousands of individuals. The grant was awarded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

After a large-scale radiological incident in a U.S. city, tens or possibly hundreds of thousands of individuals would need to be immediately screened for radiation exposure. Those with high levels of radiation would need to be quickly triaged into treatment. Current technologies can assess only a few hundred individuals per day.

"Columbia University's extensive work in disaster relief and preparedness, as well as our location in New York City, makes us the ideal institution to address this critical threat," said David Hirsh, Ph.D., executive vice president for research at Columbia University. "This grant recognizes our excellence in radiological research and dedication to applying it to the protection of citizens against accidental or intentional harm."

"We are delighted that our proposed technologies have been selected for this grant to help provide rapid, targeted triage following a radiation event," said David J. Brenner, Ph.D., D.Sc., professor of radiation oncology and public health, Center for Radiological Research, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Dr. Brenner is principal investigator of the consortium.

Short Timeframe for Care
"Rapid triage is especially important as some treatments for radiation exposure need to be administered within specific windows of time. The screening will also provide reassurance for the great majority of individuals who would not need medical intervention, while preserving valuable, limited resources for those who do," said Dr. Brenner.

The need for this project was illustrated in a 1987 radiation incident in Goiânia, Brazil, an area that has approximately the same population as Manhattan. In the first few days after the incident became publicly known, 130,000 people (10 percent of the population) sought screening, of whom only 20 were determined to need treatment.

Three-Part Research
The NIAID/NIH-funded research is divided into the three areas the Consortium has determined to have the most potential for high-throughput dose assessment:

Project 1: Rapid Tissue Analysis - Design and construction of a new device that will use advanced, high-speed automated image analysis and robotics to quickly examine tissue samples (e.g., a fingerstick of blood) for quantitative indicators of radiation exposure (e.g., fragments of DNA; DNA repair complexes).

Project 2: Molecular Screening - Design and construction of a small, inexpensive, easily-transportable device to conduct rapid molecular screening for radiation exposure. The team will analyze a set of specific genes for changes that indicate radiation exposure.

Project 3: Completely Non-Invasive Screening - Design and construction of a completely non-invasive screening tool for radiation exposure. The goal is to avoid even the smallest finger prick for a blood sample. The team will analyze sweat, urine or saliva samples for unique changes in metabolites that indicate radiation exposure.

Training Component
The consortium incorporates training and education at two of the nation's top programs for radiation biologists - Columbia University Medical Center and the Harvard University School of Public Health.

Eric J. Hall, D.Phil., D.Sc., director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia's College of Physicians and Surgeons, will lead the training component. Approximately 30 physicians, researchers and technicians, etc., will receive training each year in Boston and New York City in radiological sciences and disaster relief in radiological situations.

Radiation Science at Columbia
This research capitalizes upon the extensive expertise in radiation sciences at Columbia. The Center for Radiological Research, founded by a student of Marie Curie, has been in existence for 90 years.

Dr. Brenner, director of the Columbia University Radiological Research Accelerator Facility, has published extensively on the biological effects of both low doses and high doses of radiation. His paper in the September 2005 edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that the risks of very low doses of radiation may well have been underestimated. Currently, he is leading other NIH-funded research into the potential radiation risks to children who have had multiple CT (computed tomography, also known as CAT) scans.

Additional Columbia University researchers include: Sally Amundson, Charles Geard, Gary Johnson and Gerhard Randers-Pehrson (Center for Radiological Research at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons); Marianthi Markatou, Stephen Morse and Frederica Perera (Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University Medical Center); Lawrence Yao (Department of Mechanical Engineering at Columbia University), and; John Zimmerman (Department of Biomedical Informatics at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and the School of Dental and Oral Surgery at Columbia University Medical Center).

"With our multidisciplinary mix of biologists, physicists, chemists, mechanical engineers, software engineers, product development experts, commercial companies, and end users, we will approach this challenge from many unique angles," said Sally A. Amundson, Ph.D., associate professor of radiation oncology, Center for Radiological Research, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Dr. Amundson is the co-principal investigator.

The eight institutions involved in the research consortium are: Columbia University (lead institution); Harvard University School of Public Health; Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute; the National Cancer Institute; University of Pittsburgh Medical Center; Translational Genomics Research Institute; Sionex Corporation; and the City of New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
-end-
The Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons epitomizes a multidisciplinary approach toward understanding the biological consequences of ionizing radiation exposures as they relate to human health. The Center's staff includes an interdisciplinary mix of professional scientists from fields as diverse as molecular biology, cell biology, radiation physics, computational physics, engineering, and radiation oncology, performing research in experimental biophysics, cellular and microbeam studies, molecular and chromatin studies, and physics and biology related to both low dose radiation and radiation therapy.

Columbia University Medical Center provides international leadership in basic, pre-clinical and clinical research, medical education, and health care. The medical center trains future leaders in health care and includes the dedicated work of many physicians, scientists, nurses, dentists, and public health professionals at the College of Physicians & Surgeons, the School of Dental & Oral Surgery, the School of Nursing, the Mailman School of Public Health, the biomedical departments of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and allied research centers and institutions. With a strong history of discovery in health care, Columbia University Medical Center researchers are leading the development of novel therapies and advances to address a wide range of health conditions. www.cumc.columbia.edu

Columbia University Medical Center

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