An infusion of blood stem cells can be used to boost bone marrow in cancer patients ravaged by radiation treatment. But experts say the procedure could also save the lives of Japan's nuclear workers, who've been exposed to high levels of radioactive contamination while battling nuclear fallout at the country's Fukushima Dai-ichi plant, 150 miles north of Tokyo.
At least two workers were hospitalized last week after coming in contact with radioactive water as they tried to lay electricity cables. The exact level of radiation the workers are constantly exposed to hasn't been made public.
Now, Japanese authorities are considering plans to collect and freeze cells from some of the workers, in case they're in need of blood stem cell transplants later on, when the true amount of contamination is known, and if workers begin to fall ill.
Workers who've been exposed to high levels of contamination could develop acute radiation syndrome. "The survival rate of patients with this syndrome decreases with increasing [radiation] dose," the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website. "The primary cause of death is the destruction of the bone marrow."
That's where the stem cell transplants might come in.
The procedure would be similar to that performed on cancer patients. Its requires patients to go on special drugs that boost their bone marrow production and release stem cells into the blood. After several days, the stem cells are harvested through a blood filtration system. The process would have to be done on nuclear workers before they're exposed to radiation, and then their stem cells would be stored for use later, in case they're affected.
"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," Dr. Dean Nizetic, a stem cell researcher and professor of cellular and molecular biology at Barts and the London School of Medicine, told AOL News.
He referred to the cautionary attitude some other experts have raised: It's possible stem cell transplants might give nuclear workers a false sense of safety --- believing that any radiation damage might be reversed afterward.
Nizetic said human tissues like bone marrow, skin and the digestive tract's lining are the first to suffer from radiation overexposure. But while stem cell transplants might restore a patient's bone marrow, it's not as easy to fix radiation damage to other kinds of cells.
"While restoration of one's own bone marrow with stem cells isolated from one's own bone marrow sample taken prior to radiation damage is routinely achievable, for example in cancer patients, restoration of other tissues is not yet easily achievable in clinical practice -- with few exceptions. But even those require complicated, risky and costly procedures," Nizetic said.
Japan's nuclear crisis has reignited debates over how much precaution is necessary for workers or people who live near nuclear facilities. In the United States, the Fukushima workers' plight has triggered a run on potassium iodide, a drug that helps reduce the risk of thyroid cancer during radiation exposure.
Nuclear workers are already issued preventative doses of the drug, just in case. But a debate has ensued about how many Americans should also be distributed the drug, depending on how close they live to nuclear sites.