University of Rochester

Medical Center

Terror Research Brings National Grants

Projects designed to improve the country’s response to possible terrorist attacks using radiological and biological weapons will be the focus of several Medical Center teams, thanks to $41 million in grants awarded to the University from the National Institutes of Health last fall.

The total includes a single, $21 million, five-year award to join a nationwide network of seven institutions funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID) to address health issues involving radiological weapons such as “dirty bombs” that would release low levels of radiation into the environment.

“We are proud to be a part of the important effort of helping our nation better prepare for the devastating warfare techniques that have evolved and threaten our country and the world each day,” said Medical Center CEO C. McCollister (Mac) Evarts ’57M (MD), ’64M (Res) in announcing the award.

As part of the $21 million grant, believed to be the largest single grant ever awarded to the Medical Center by the NIH, Rochester researchers have established the Center for Biophysical Assessment and Risk Management Following Irradiation. The new center will focus on finding ways to measure levels of radiation exposure in humans, treat the toxic effects of radiation, and identify ways to predict the long-term health risks posed by low levels of radioactive particles.

Paul Okunieff, chairman of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the James P. Wilmot Cancer Center, and Jacob (Jack) Finkelstein, professor of environmental medicine, radiation oncology, and pediatrics, share principal investigator duties on the project.

In separate projects, the NIAID also selected the Medical Center to receive two $10 million grants to help study defenses against terror attacks involving viruses or bacteria. One grant will establish the Center for Biodefense Immune Modeling, which will develop computer simulations of how the human immune system responds to influenza A and smallpox. That work could help researchers devise countermeasures, including new ways to boost the body’s ability to fight disease.

The second $10 million grant will establish the Program for Biodefense of Immunocompromised Populations. Its goal will be to find new ways to help those most vulnerable to bioterrorist attack to survive despite having weaker immune systems.

Under the $21 million initiative, the Medical Center will collaborate with Dartmouth Medical School, the University Health Network in Toronto, and other laboratories on five projects to develop fast and accurate tools to identify radiation exposure in large numbers of people.

Project 1: Using blood and skin tests to measure the body’s inflammation response to toxic radiation exposure. Scientists also hope to identify and evaluate at least 10 different drugs or natural remedies that might protect the body from harmful radiation.

Project 2: Understanding how inhaled radioactive dust, smoke, or other ultrafine particles harm lung tissue and cells, especially in the lower doses most likely to occur during a radiological attack. Also, scientists will identify agents that could mitigate the organ damage.

Project 3: Calculating a radiation dose by monitoring the teeth. Scientists will use a field instrument, developed at Dartmouth, to test its ability to screen victims’ radiation exposure within minutes. The goal is to be able to determine very quickly whether people have received a dose of radiation that could cause immediate, serious health problems.

Project 4: Using a currently available blood test to determine if it could evaluate levels of radiation exposure and predict future cancer risk.

Project 5: Developing a skin test that could measure DNA damage in the cells of the superficial layers of skin following radiation exposure.