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NIH Funds Study of Injuries from Radiation Exposure

Early Prediction Could Save Lives

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Profs. Susan Braunhut and Mark Tries

By Edwin L. Aguirre

A team of researchers from UMass Lowell and the Medical College of Wisconsin has been awarded two grants by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) totaling nearly $930,000 over a period of five years to develop ways to predict and mitigate injuries resulting from radiation exposure.

Prof. Susan Braunhut in Biology and Assoc. Prof. Mark Tries in Physics will collaborate with Assoc. Prof. Meetha Medhora in Wisconsin to identify and quantify innovative “biomarkers” that can potentially predict radiation injuries to the lungs, weeks before symptoms become apparent. This will help doctors in deciding on the appropriate treatment and reducing lung injury in victims of a radiological terrorist attack, a nuclear reactor accident or in patients receiving radiation therapy for lung and breast cancers.

The second project will study the use of the anti-hypertension drug lisinopril to mitigate radiation injuries to multiple organs, such as lungs and kidneys, before symptoms develop.

Members of the UMass Lowell research group also include Braunhut lab staff scientists Abiche Dewilde and Jianping Zhang and graduate student Christopher Achorn. 

Preventing Deadly Pneumonitis

While symptoms involving the skin, blood and neurovascular and gastrointestinal systems usually appear soon after exposure to high doses of radiation, the lungs can take up to 6 to 8 weeks before potentially lethal pneumonitis sets in. Pneumonitis, marked by inflammation of the lung tissue, impairs a person’s ability to breathe. 

“We will use new biomarkers from exhaled breath and blood to predict lung injury so treatment can be given to the victim within the first 30 days of exposure, helping reduce mortality from pneumonitis,” says Braunhut. 

“Biomarkers are reliable predictors of the magnitude of radiation dose received, whether it’s minimal, treatable or fatal,” says Braunhut.

From Hypertension to Radiation-induced Injuries

Lisinopril, which belongs to a class of drugs known as angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, is prescribed by doctors to treat high blood pressure and congestive heart failure and to improve survival after a heart attack. But lisinopril has also shown promise in reducing radiation injuries to lungs and kidneys following a radiological or nuclear incident.

“The drug can be given up to 72 hours after exposure to radiation, but before symptoms develop,” says Braunhut.

The team will evaluate the effectiveness of lisinopril on laboratory test subjects that have been exposed to neutrons and gamma rays that mimic the explosion of an improvised nuclear device.

Medhora will be on campus to give a lecture on the team’s work on April 23 at 4 p.m. in Olsen 503. Everyone is welcome to attend.