UR Receives $21 Million Terrorism Research Grant

September 12, 2005

The University of Rochester Medical Center will participate in a new nationwide network of seven Centers for Medical Countermeasures Against Radiation to improve the country’s response to a radiological attack, such as with a dirty bomb. The National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease awarded the university $21 million, over five years.

University officials believe this is the largest grant the NIH has awarded to the University of Rochester.

“We are proud to be a part of the important effort of helping our nation better prepare for the devastating warfare techniques that have evolved and threaten our country and the world each day,” said C. McCollister Evarts, M.D., CEO of the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Rochester researchers have established the Center for Biophysical Assessment and Risk Management Following Irradiation which will focus on finding ways to measure levels of radiation exposure in humans, treat the toxic effects of radiation, and, importantly, identify a means of predicting the long-term health risks posed by low levels of radioactive particles.

“There’s an unfortunate absence of anything we can give people if there is a radiological attack,” said Paul Okunieff, M.D., chairman of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Rochester’s James P. Wilmot Cancer Center, and co-principal investigator.

 “We have vaccines being tested and antibiotics available for chemical or biological attacks,” Okunieff said. “Now, with this funding, we are able to fast-track the science and develop concrete plans to monitor and treat people in the event of a radiological attack.”

The project allows the University of Rochester to expand on expertise it has developed over decades: how to prevent healthy tissue from being harmed during radiation therapy for cancer, and how radiation and other toxins affect the body over time.

The university also has a long-established expertise in the study of inhaled toxins on the lungs and other organs. In fact, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the university was enlisted to analyze the ultra fine dust particles collected from around the World Trade Center, and to assess their effect on the lungs of rescue workers and Manhattan residents.

Experience in those scientific areas fit into the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s new initiative, said co-Principal Investigator Jacob N. “Jack” Finkelstein, Ph.D., professor of Environmental Medicine, Radiation Oncology and Pediatrics.

During the next five years, the University of Rochester will collaborate with Dartmouth Medical School, the University Health Network in Toronto, Canada, and other laboratories, on five projects. These projects are designed to develop fast and accurate tools to identify radiation exposure in large numbers of people.

  • Project 1: Using blood and skin tests to measure the body’s inflammation response to toxic radiation exposure. Scientists also hope to identify and evaluate at least 10 different drugs or natural remedies that might protect the body from harmful radiation.
  • Project 2: Understanding how inhaled radioactive dust or other ultra fine particles harm lung tissue and cells, especially in the lower doses most likely to occur during a radiological attack. Also, scientists will identify agents that could mitigate the organ damage.
  • Project 3: Calculating a radiation dose by monitoring the teeth. Scientists will use a field instrument, developed at Dartmouth, to test its ability to screen victims’ radiation exposure within minutes. This project’s goal is to meet a critical need: to be able to determine very quickly after an incident whether people have received a dose of radiation that could cause immediate, serious health problems.
  • Project 4: Using a blood test that is currently used to detect if drugs are geno-toxic to humans, to determine if the same test could evaluate levels of radiation exposure and predict future cancer risk.
  • Project 5: Developing a skin test that could measure DNA damage in the cells of the superficial layers of skin following radiation exposure. Just as in Project 4, this research would also attempt to predict the risk of a person developing cancerous tumors in the future.

In addition to Okunieff and Finkelstein, the research group includes Jacqueline P. Williams, Ph.D., associate research professor of Radiation Oncology; Yuhchyau Chen, Ph.D., M.D., associate professor of Radiation Oncology; and Sally W. Thurston, Ph.D., assistant professor of Biostatistics. 

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