A retired professor living in the manicured desert town of Meitar believes she has discovered a potential vaccine that, taken in advance of a nuclear attack, would reduce the physiological damage from radiation.
Her theory is yet untested, but is built around the notion that humans can be vaccinated against radiation in the same way as a virus: introduce small amounts of it to “teach” the body how to respond when larger amounts are suddenly present.
Just as the reactive immune system “remembers, rapidly responds, and protects us” from, say, smallpox, once it has been initially introduced to the body in a small dose in vaccine form, so too will the signature damage of radiation, which triggers the unchecked secretion of hydrogen peroxide within the body, be picked up and addressed, said Professor Brenda Laster, who taught nuclear engineering as applied to medicine at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
Laster’s hypothesis posits that not all exposure to radiation is cancerous and that hydrogen peroxide, delivered in small doses over a long period of time, would train the body’s reactive immune system to recognize the assault and combat it.
Laster and her lab research assistant, Carol Isaacson, have documented “an immune response” in mice after three weeks of having their drinking water replaced by a dilute hydrogen peroxide solution.
Now, all Laster and Isaacson need is funding.
A radiation ‘threshold’ for humans?
Dr. Zvi Symon of Sheba Medical Center, for one, is not convinced. “It sounds wild,” he said.
Symon, director of the hospital’s Radiation Oncology Department, gave an example to explain his skepticism toward this kind of gradual radiation immunity build-up.
Let’s say, he started, that “there’s this acid — sulfuric acid, let’s say — and that pouring it over someone’s face will kill him and burn his face off.” If someone told you, he continued, that “if you use very small amounts of it, and inject it and maybe one of its metabolites, then it won’t burn you — would you believe it?”
Laster, however, believes that there is a clear difference between the two. The immune systems of mice, and perhaps people, would be able to develop a resistance to high-dose radiation, she maintained.
When people are exposed to radiation, Laster found, some highly reactive molecules are created. To neutralize them, the body releases certain anti-oxidants to convert those free radicals into harmless oxygen and potentially dangerous hydrogen peroxide.
In high doses, this process can be damaging, but Laster is convinced that ingesting small amounts of hydrogen peroxide prepares the body for the effects of radiation exposure. She is so certain, in fact, that since 2009 she has been taking a daily dose of the chemical compound herself.
“I told Carol,” she said, “the day you give hydrogen peroxide to the mice is the day I start to take it too.”
Laster, who immigrated to Israel from the US in 1997, completed her doctorate – on binary systems for the improvement of cancer radiotherapy – at the age of 49, after her youngest child had graduated high school. Shortly thereafter she found herself in the middle of a controversy about whether all exposure to radiation causes cancer.
The studies done after the American bombing of Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki proved that high-dose radiation causes cancer but, Laster said, there were no studies done among the population exposed to a low dose.
Symon, however, insisted that even a low dose of radiation can be harmful.
“Exposing people to small amounts of radiation or to free radicals is a wild and actually dangerous, probably, idea,” he said. “I don’t think it has any scientific merit.”
But Laster believes that there is a threshold beneath which exposure is not harmful and that deducing from the high exposure to the low, without testing, is a mistake.
“There is nothing in this whole world that I can think of that doesn’t have a threshold,” she said.
“Even arsenic, which at high levels is a poison,” added Isaacson, “used to be taken at low levels as a tonic.”
But radiation, Symon maintained, is dangerous even in the small amount given off during an X-ray.
“When they image children and take an X-ray,” he noted, “today they think twice because maybe in 20 years’ time that may cause a secondary cancer.”
When a person is exposed to radiation, Symon explained, one-third of the damage comes from the direct bombardment of subatomic photon particles on DNA and the other two-thirds comes from the free radicals, reactive molecules in the body that can cause cancer, strokes and other negative effects.
Uzi Evan, professor emeritus of Physical Chemistry at Tel Aviv University and former nuclear scientist at Dimona, agreed with Laster to an extent, saying he does “concur that the present model for calculating radiation risk is outmoded and in need of reexamination.” He further noted that newer data, collected after Chernobyl and Fukushima, “shows that the danger from low-level exposure to radiation is probably over estimated.”
But the rest of Laster’s theory, he said, dealing with medical functions, was too far removed from his field of expertise.
Cells recognize patterns of danger
According to Laster, the common thinking about radiation-induced cancer is that it occurs when broken and mutated DNA cells becomes cancer cells.
Upon investigating, though, Laster joined the school of thought that believes that, since human cells are 70% water, which is 100 times greater than the DNA content of a cell, there is a greater chance of radiation interacting with a water molecule than there is of it interacting with DNA.
This interaction with water, Laster found, causes the creation of a very reactive, very energetic superoxide and the body, looking to defend itself, sends an abundance of anti-oxidant enzymes to grab hold of it and change it immediately to hydrogen peroxide and oxygen.
High concentrations of hydrogen peroxide create rapid inflammation and the body responds by sending white blood cells to the rescue. “If this inflammation becomes chronic, then the body does not have the resources to effect a repair and this can in turn lead to cancer,” Laster said.
Additionally, the white blood cells circulating in the body trying to combat outside threats secrete even more hydrogen peroxide. “So now we are talking about a second source of hydrogen peroxide near an area where there was danger or damage to a cell,” she said.
Unchecked, this can be deadly.
Laster believes that ingesting hydrogen peroxide teaches the body to protect itself. “I think I am doing random damage,” she said of the 3-5 drops of hydrogen peroxide she has daily with her water. “I drink it and it circulates in my body. Where it stops it creates DAMPs” – damage associated molecular patterns – “but it is doing so at such a slow level, I am not getting inflammation.” These varied DAMPs are picked up by cells and transferred to the adaptive immune system, which, for example, would say about smallpox, “Oh my God, this is smallpox and I need to protect myself against this.”
The next time the cells encounter the same pattern, “they activate very rapidly and don’t let the inflammation affect the body,” she said.
‘One out of every 10,000 experiments that works on an animal, works on a human’
Yet she has not been able to secure any funding for further, necessary trials on mice.
“No one understands this concept,” she said. “No one makes the connection between radiation viruses and bacteria and so on. People just don’t do it.”
Isaacson said people think of radiation in terms of physical damage. “They think of it in terms of burns but not on the molecular level,” she said. “And so they build shields and bunkers but no one is looking at the damage being done to the body itself.”
But even if this immunity could be created in mice, Symon argued, it would not necessarily prove the same for humans.
“One out of every 10,000 experiments that works on an animal works on a human,” Symon said. Humans are simply not mice, he declared.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.