For many Americans – especially those too young to know much about the Cold War or Hiroshima – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might mark the first time they’ve truly considered the dangers of nuclear weapons. But dozens of hematologists in the United States already know the drill and have placed themselves on the front lines. These physicians stand prepared to treat patients exposed to radiation caused by nuclear accidents or attacks on U.S. soil.
They work nationwide at 74 medical centers that make up the Radiation Injury Treatment Network, ready to manage cases of acute radiation syndrome (ARS) during disasters. While RITN keeps a low profile, it’s been in the news lately amid anxieties about the Ukraine conflict, nuclear plant accidents, and the potential launching of nuclear weapons by foreign adversaries.
“The Radiation Injury Treatment Network helps plan responses for disaster scenarios where a person’s cells would be damaged after having been exposed to ionizing radiation,” program director Cullen Case Jr., MPA, said in an interview.
A U.S. Army veteran who took part in hurricane response early in his career, Mr. Case now oversees preparedness activities among all RITN hospitals, blood donor centers, and cord blood banks, in readiness for a mass casualty radiological incident. He also serves as a senior manager of the National Marrow Donor Program/Be a Match Marrow Registry.
Intense preparation for nuclear attacks or accidents is necessary, Mr. Case said, despite the doomsday scenarios disseminated on television shows and movies.
“The most frequent misconception we hear is that a nuclear disaster will encompass the whole world and be so complete that preparedness isn’t useful. However, many planning scenarios include smaller-scale incidents where survivors will need prompt and expert care,” he said.
In the wake of 9/11, the National Marrow Donor Program and the American Society for Blood and Marrow Transplantation established the RITN in 2006, with a mission to prepare for nuclear disaster and help manage the response if one occurs.
“The widespread availability of radioactive material has made future exposure events, accidental or intentional, nearly inevitable,” RITN leaders warned in a 2008 report. “Hematologists, oncologists, and HSCT [hematopoietic stem cell transplantation] physicians are uniquely suited to care for victims of radiation exposure, creating a collective responsibility to prepare for a variety of contingencies.”
RITN doesn’t just train physicians, Mr. Case noted. All medical centers within the RITN are required to conduct an annual tabletop exercise where a radiation disaster scenario and a set of discussion questions are presented to the team.
Hematologists specially equipped to treat radiation injuries
Why are hematologists involved in treating people exposed to dangerously high levels of radiation? The answer has to do with how radiation harms the body, said Dr. Ann A. Jakubowski, a hematologist/oncologist and transplant physician at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York, who serves as a medical director for RITN.
“One of the most common toxicities from radiation exposure and a major player in acute radiation syndrome is hematologic toxicity– damage to the bone marrow by the radiation, with a resultant decrease in peripheral blood counts,” she said in an interview. “This is similar to what is often seen in the treatment of cancers with radiation and/or chemotherapy.”
In cases of severe and nonreversible radiation damage to the bone marrow, Dr. Jakubowski noted, “patients can be considered for a stem cell transplant to provide new healthy cells to repopulate the bone marrow, which provides recovery of peripheral blood counts. Hematologist/oncologists are the physicians who manage stem cell transplants.”
The crucial role of hematologists in radiation injuries is not new. In fact, these physicians have been closely intertwined with nuclear research since the dawn of the atomic age. The work of developing atomic bombs also led investigators to an understanding of the structure and processes of hematopoiesis and helped them to identify hematopoietic stem cells and prove their existence in humans.