University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute (UPCI)


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UPMC, Pitt Radiation Experts Available to Discuss Health Issues in Wake of Japanese Reactor Explosions

Pittsburgh, PA, March 18, 2011 – Joel S. Greenberger, M.D., professor and chair, Department of Radiation Oncology, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and UPMC radiation oncologist, is available to review concerns about radiation exposure in the aftermath of earthquake damage to several of Japan's nuclear reactors.

Ionizing radiation can kill cells or damage them in ways that make them more likely to become cancerous, he explained. The bone marrow, which makes blood cells, is particularly sensitive to radiation exposure.

"There are several immediate steps that need to be taken to deal with this danger," Dr. Greenberger said. "First, hospitals and health workers must be decontaminated and protected, and safe ways to dispose of contaminated clothing and materials must be quickly identified and utilized."

Then, he continued, experts must determine individual radiation exposure through screening tools such as Geiger counters. If a person experiences symptoms such as vomiting within a couple of hours of exposure, they are more likely to need bone marrow or blood stem cell transplantation. Blood tests should be done immediately and within 12 to 24 hours to determine whether blood cell counts are dropping and how quickly to plan for appropriate medical treatment.

It will be weeks before the health impact of the catastrophe in Japan can be known, and possibly months before it can be determined what range of doses of radiation people might have received, Dr. Greenberger said.

In addition to treating patients with controlled doses of radiation to kill cancer cells, Dr. Greenberger leads the university's Center for Medical Countermeasures Against Radiation, an active research program to develop drugs that could provide protection from radiation in emergencies such as reactor meltdowns. In October, that effort was awarded a $13.9 million, five-year grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Yuri E. Nikiforov, M.D., Ph.D., professor, Department of Pathology, Pitt School of Medicine, and director, Thyroid Molecular Diagnostics, UPMC/University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Multidisciplinary Thyroid Center, was a pathologist at a pediatric hospital in Minsk when a reactor exploded in Chernobyl in April 1986. In the aftermath of that disaster, he became one of the world's experts on radiation-induced thyroid cancer.

"The type of radiation being released by the Fukushima Daichii plant is likely similar to the Chernobyl disaster," he said. "In the long term, we shall probably see many more thyroid cancer cases there."

Dr. Nikiforov noted that there was no discernable rise in cases of leukemia, although an increase in that blood cancer did occur after the bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Currently, Dr. Nikiforov is studying the genetic mutations caused by radiation that lead to thyroid cancer, which could help predict the tumor's aggressiveness and guide intervention, as well as developing measures to prevent cancer development after radiation exposure. He is the author of more than 100 scientific papers as well as 20 books and book chapters on thyroid cancer and radiation-induced cancer genesis.

Steven Hodak, M.D., co-director, UPMC/University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute Multidisciplinary Thyroid Center, also is available to speak on the clinical effects of ionizing radiation exposure. "There is no question that exposure to therapeutic or other high dose ionizing radiation increases the risk of thyroid cancer, especially when it occurs at a younger age," he said. "The exposure increases the risk but generally does not increase the severity of the cancer."

Dr. Hodak is a clinical affairs committee member of the American Thyroid Association, chair of the thyroid section of the Endocrine Society's Annual Endocrinology Update and author of many peer-reviewed scientific publications. He is a clinical endocrinologist with subspecialty interests in thyroid disease, osteoporosis, hyperparathyroidism and pituitary disorders.