A groundbreaking advance in medicine announced this week promises to dramatically reduce the number of people who would be killed in a nuclear war due to radiation poisoning with simple injections administered within three days of exposure.

Funded by the Pentagon, Professor Andrei Gudkov, chief scientific officer at Cleveland BioLabs, developed the preventative drug – it’s not a vaccine – based on research he began in 2003 using protein produced in bacteria found in the intestine to protect cells from radiation, reported Israel’s YnetNews.

Cells exposed to large doses of radiation die, scientists have found, when the cell’s “suicide mechanism” is activated. The new medication based on intestinal bacteria works by suppressing the mechanism that causes cells to die and allows them to recover.

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Gudkov’s hunch paid off in early mice studies.

“We exposed both groups to lethal radioactive radiation,” he told YNetNews. “All the mice in the control group died within a short period of time. A few days later, when I approached the cage with the mice that received the protein, I could see that they’re OK, that they’re alive. They survived. It’s hard to describe the joy all of us felt. We realized that finally, after so many years and so many experiments and frustrations, we made a breakthrough that may save the lives of millions.”

Those results were published in the journal Science, but the discovery of the injectable medicine is only now being revealed following two tests that showed the drug’s effectiveness in protecting monkeys and its safety for humans.

In the monkey experiment, two groups of 650 individuals were exposed to levels of radiation equal to the highest dosage humans experienced at the 1986 nuclear reactor accident at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine. Only one group was given the medication.

Among those monkeys not receiving the injection, 70 percent died. Those that survived were diagnosed with various health problems linked to radiation poisoning. In the second group, nearly all the monkeys survived without side efects of radiation poisoning. Similar results were found for monkeys receiving the shots within 24 hours and 72 hours.

A second test on humans, who were administered the injections, but not given any radiation dose, found no adverse side effects.

Expanded safety tests are planned under a program provided for fast-tracking bio-defense drugs. At the current rate of testing and progress, Gudkov expects his work to be completed by mid-2010 and FDA approval within one to two years.

“Both its effectiveness and safety had been proven. It is stable, safe, and easy to inject,” said Elena Feinstein, an Israeli researcher working with Gudkov.

Stability and ease of use are particularly important if the drug is to be stockpiled for extended periods to be used in a nuclear emergency when conditions are chaotic.

If the drug performs as early tests indicate – and Feinstein and Gudkov both note it is not completely effective – it could save millions of lives in contaminated areas beyond the immediate blast zone of a nuclear weapon and free emergency responders to treat survivors suffering acute injuries. Localized dirty bombs, long-feared by security experts, would not necessarily be accompanied by high numbers of casualties.

The drug is also seen as a way of permitting cancer sufferers undergoing chemotherapy to receive higher and more effective radiation dosages without sustaining radiation damage.

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