On 11 March 2011, a magnitude 9 earthquake occurred off the coast of Japan. Upwards of 15,000 people are thought to have died in the ensuring Tsunami, which damaged hundreds of buildings including the Fukushima nuclear power station.
The facility lost its core cooling capacity which caused severe damage to its reactor and led to a nuclear accident rated as Level 7 on the International Nuclear Events Scale (INES). The only other level 7 accident is the Chernobyl disaster.
People living in the vicinity of Fukushima were exposed to substantial amounts of radioactive materials according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
However, a subsequent United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) report suggests that only one person has died as a result of exposure to radiation in the five years since the Fukushima meltdown.
While this finding – which is supported by other recent studies - is encouraging, concerns remain about the impact exposure to radioactive materials will have on workers involved in ongoing clean up efforts.
The major worry is that workers are at increased risk of bone marrow damage.
Stem cell therapy
In December medics from Fukushima Medical University looking for a potential treatment option partnered with Pluristem Therapeutics to test a placenta-derived stem cell-based therapy called PLX-R18, that is used to help cancer patients recover after radiotherapy.
Assessments in Japan so far have been positive according to a spokeswoman for the Israeli drug firm, who told us the therapy consists of live cells that can sense chemical distress signals from bone marrow that has been damaged by radiation.
“In response, the cells secrete a range of therapeutic proteins that travel through the blood to the bone marrow and there they trigger the bone marrow to heal itself, regenerate and recover the ability to make blood cells, which are necessary for survival.”
PLX-R18 is made in a bioreactor that “creates a 3D microenvironment for the cells to grow in, which mimics the natural environment in which the cells are usually found, so they expand and respond well to the modifications we make to turn the raw placental cells into our cell products.”
The patented bioreactor reactor also controls which therapeutic proteins PLX-R18 secretes.
The spokeswoman explained that: “We change the environment and settings in the reactors within which the cells are growing to train them to preferentially secrete specific ranges of therapeutic proteins, thereby making distinct products each targeting a different set of disease processes.”