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Workers at Fukushima nuclear plant to be offered stem cell banking

04 April 2011

By Dr Charlotte Maden

Appeared in BioNews 602

At the Fukushima nuclear plant affected by the recent earthquake in Japan, workers have been attempting to fix the damage to the reactors, despite potentially high levels of radioactive contamination. As a result, the workers may now be invited to bank their stem cells for future treatment should they become ill.

High levels of radiation exposure may cause illness from radiation syndrome - destruction of the bone marrow, skin, gastrointestinal tract and lungs - which may lead to death. Survival rates of sufferers decrease with increasing intensity of radiation.

Japanese authorities are proposing harvesting blood stem cells from the workers should they fall ill and require stem cell transplants later. The procedure is currently used for some cancer patients whose bone marrow has been destroyed following extensive chemo- or radiation therapies. Patients take drugs to increase the release of blood stem cells from the bone marrow, which are later harvested from the blood and stored.

According to Professor Alejandro Madrigal, scientific director at the Anthony Nolan transplant charity and president of the European group for blood and marrow transplantation, the plan makes sense and more than 50 hospitals in Europe have agreed to help the Japanese if required.

Professor Dean Nizetic, an expert in cellular and molecular biology at Barts and the London School of Medicine, told AOL News: 'I think the idea is good, provided that the exposure dose is still strictly monitored, and no cavalier attitudes taken or normal safety procedures relaxed in any way'.

Blood stem cells transplants can replenish the bone marrow but effects on other sites of damage are less readily achievable, causing some experts to caution its use. Dr Robert Gale, a US medical researcher advising the Japanese government, told the Guardian: 'These cells can reconstitute bone marrow function; that is not the only target of high dose radiation, they would have damage elsewhere, to their lungs, gastrointestinal tract and their skin. I, and a number of colleagues, feel it's not an appropriate thing to do'.

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