Research could help people exposed to radiation

Jeffrey Atkinson

Jeffrey Atkinson's research into vitamin E could help those who have undergone cancer treatments, or even been exposed to radioactive bombs.

A Brock professor’s quest to make vitamin E better for the human body has attracted the funding of an American agency interested in treatment for individuals exposed to radiation.

Jeffrey Atkinson, a Chemistry professor who will move his lab to the Cairns Family Health and Bioscience Complex, was recently given a $33,000 U.S. grant by the Center for Medical Countermeasures against Radiation (CMCR). The grant is to further develop chemical compounds injected into cells that will stop programmed cell death caused by radiation exposure.

The research will impact the development of medical treatments for those exposed to radiation from cancer radiotherapy. It will also benefit those exposed to “dirty bombs” containing radioactive material, and even astronauts who endure prolonged space flight.

Atkinson’s research group came to the attention of the CMCR, housed at the University of Pittsburgh, because of its groundbreaking work over the past two decades with vitamin E, also known as tocopherol. There are eight naturally occurring forms of vitamin E, only one of which is retained by the body, Atkinson explains. The rest are metabolized and excreted, which negates any of the potential health benefits generally known to be associated with vitamin E.

To inhibit the metabolizing effect, one group of collaborators, led by Robert Parker at Cornell University, worked to uncover which enzymes are responsible for metabolizing vitamin E. Once Parker’s group had success, they enlisted Brock’s group to create and test artificial enzymes. Out of the 16 created, the first one worked right away. A patent was filed with the hope of eventually developing drugs that enable those other forms of tocopherol to be useful in treating disease.

This earlier research helps ground the new research, since Atkinson’s group is now working on synthetic compounds to inject into the cells exposed to radiation, to inhibit that programmed cell death which comes from exposure.

Atkinson’s research has already produced encouraging results. In testing animals exposed to radiation, those with the compounds injected into their cells pushed the 10-day window of survival to 30 days. Further tests of compounds and trials are needed, but these encouraging results are going to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Nature Chemistry.

While the funding comes as a subaward from the CMCR, the CMCR received its main award from the National Institutes of Allergic and Infectious Disease (NIAID), which offers grants to scientists who can find ways of treating people exposed to radiation. There are numerous centres across the United States dedicated to increasing collaborative efforts between academic institutions working to develop new medical technology for defence of the public. According to the Pittsburgh CMCR, few products are currently available for prevention of radiation injury, for treatment of post-exposure injury, or for the rapid identification of exposed individuals requiring treatment.

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