Could Stem-Cell Transplants Help the Japanese Nuclear Workers?

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REUTERS/Kyodo

Japanese authorities have proposed the precautionary measure of harvesting and banking stem cells from the bone marrow of workers at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, in order to transplant the cells back into those who may become exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.

High levels of radiation exposure can damage bone marrow and result in illness or death, but a stem-cell transplant — which is used to treat cancer patients whose bone marrow is damaged by chemo or radiation — may be able to save lives.

(More on TIME.com: See what’s next for Japan’s Fukushima heroes.)

The U.K.’s Guardian reports:

The procedure requires workers to take a drug for several days that causes their bone marrow to release stem cells into the blood. They are then hooked up to a machine through which their blood is passed and filtered to extract the stem cells.

Alejandro Madrigal, scientific director at the Anthony Nolan transplant charity and president of the European group for blood and marrow transplantation, said the plan made sense given the risk to workers at Fukushima. He said more than 50 hospitals in Europe have agreed to help the Japanese if required.

But as Robert Peter Gale, an American medical researcher who is advising the Japanese government, pointed out in the Guardian, bone-marrow failure is not the only risk of high-dose radiation, and having a safety net of banked cells could encourage unnecessarily dangerous behavior among the workers, increasing their risk of health problems. “These cells can reconstitute bone-marrow function; that is not the only target of high-dose radiation. They would have damage elsewhere: to their lungs, gastrointestinal tract and their skin. I, and a number of colleagues, feel it’s not an appropriate thing to do,” Gale said.

See pictures of Japan’s crisis.

See “Fukushima’s Radiation Roundup: How Bad Is It?”

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