Japanese authorities are considering harvesting bone marrow from workers at the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant, hoping an infusion of their own healthy cells could save their lives if they’re exposed to dangerous radiation levels.
The procedure, known as autologous stem cell transplantation, is already used to help cancer patients whose bone marrow is destroyed by high doses of chemotherapy or radiation treatment. It is also used to treat cancers that destroy blood marrow, like leukemia, multiple myeloma and lymphoma.
The Guardian reports the plan is a precautionary measure that could help save the lives of engineers and water cannon operators who have been desperately trying to bring the damaged reactors under control.
Workers would be given blood growth factor proteins that cause their bone marrow to produce more blood stem cells and release them into the bloodstream. In a process called apheresis, which is used for donating platelets and blood plasma, they would be hooked up to a machine that filters their blood, separating the stem cells from the rest of the bloodstream. The blood is returned to their bodies, and the harvested stem cells would be frozen and kept in storage.
If the workers’ bone marrow is damaged by radiation, the stored cells could be returned to their bodies to reconstitute their immune systems. That process, called engraftment, would require a hospital stay of a couple weeks, and it could take one or two years to recover, according to an explanation at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Cancer Center.
More than 50 European hospitals have already agreed to help the Japanese if asked, according to the Guardian.
But the procedure would not guarantee the workers’ long-term health, cautioned Robert Peter Gale, an American medical researcher who is advising the Japanese, according to the Guardian. Their lungs, gastrointestinal systems and other bodily functions would also be damaged if exposed to high radiation levels.