Public Health Emergency - Leading a Nation Prepared
Author: Mary J. Homer, PhD, Chief of Radiological and Nuclear Countermeasures Branch, HHS/ASPR/BARDA and Lynne Wathen, Biodosimetry Team Leader in the Diagnostics and Medical Devices Division, HHS/ASPR/BARDA Published Date: 8/2/2017 10:22:00 AM
Category: Medical Countermeasures; Innovations; Public Health Preparedness;
Although an odd couple at first glance, NASA and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority in the office of the HHS ASPR share a common interest: protecting people from radiation injury.
NASA conducts radiation research because in space, especially on longer missions, there’s a real danger from radiation. Astronauts can be exposed to low doses of chronic cosmic radiation and are at risk from solar particle events. They even can absorb acute doses of radiation leading to acute radiation syndrome, which includes potentially deadly damage to blood cells and the body’s organs.
NASA medical professionals have to anticipate the level of radiation exposure based on the length of a flight and the type of mission, and they have to be prepared with the medical treatments astronauts may need. So NASA’s medical team was curious when a BARDA scientist reached out to talk about BARDA’s work on radiation countermeasures.
Together, they talked about the work BARDA is doing to develop better devices to measure the amount of radiation absorbed by a human body and the treatments BARDA is developing with private industry partners to treat radiation injury.
We have learned that the types of radiation astronauts are exposed to in space are different from the type of radiation that everyone else would be exposed to in a radiological or nuclear emergency on Earth, but the radiation likely has the same effects on the human body.
Now, through the memorandum of understanding the two groups signed last week, BARDA will share information gathered when developing medical countermeasures for radiation. NASA will share research on low-dose radiation that could have implications for diagnosing and treating radiation after a radiological or nuclear emergency.
NASA will take a look at the latest licensed/approved products that BARDA has supported as well as products still in development, like cytokines which help the body recover from radiation damage to white blood cells. NASA’s medical team will explore a broad range of other BARDA-sponsored medical countermeasures, too, like vaccines and antibiotics that could protect or treat other health threats astronauts encounter depending on their mission.
BARDA’s radiation medical countermeasures program covers a variety of products since so much would be needed after a nuclear or radiological emergency like an improvised radiological device. Products would be needed to treat radiation damage to lungs, the gastrointestinal system, blood cells, and even the body’s ability to make white blood cells.
Knowing how much radiation the body has absorbed is important to know which person needs treatment. Geiger counters available today only detects radiation on the skin but can’t tell how much has been absorbed. There’s no approved biodosimetry test that a first responder or emergency room nurse can use to determine that.
BARDA is working with private industry to develop products that earn FDA approval to meet all of these health challenges so the United States will be ready in an emergency. We’ve helped usher 31 products through development to FDA approval to address several chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats, including pandemic influenza.
The medical countermeasures that BARDA develops have far-reaching implications, with the potential to protect people from pandemic influenza, antibiotic-resistant infections, and bioterrorist threats. Now, BARDA is leveraging its medical countermeasures program even further and collaborating with NASA to make astronauts’ jobs a little less hazardous.
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