Better radiation detection arriving soon thanks to breakthrough technology

Thursday, April 03, 2014 by: David Gutierrez, staff writer
Tags: radiation detection, breakthrough technology, gene expression

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(NaturalNews) Even as the cleanup of Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant continues, researchers around the world are working to improve modern capability for detecting radiation contamination, whether of the environment or of the human genome.

More sensitive equipment

On March 17, the University of Liverpool announced that its Nuclear Physics Group will be partnering with private radiation detection company CANBERRA to develop new instruments that are capable of detecting lower levels of radiation in the environment more quickly. This would not only increase the ability of regulators to perform more rigorous inspections of nuclear power plants, but could assist in cleanup or containment operations such as at Fukushima, where low but still dangerous levels of radiation may have contaminated water reserves.

"Partnerships with industry are an important way of delivering some of the ground-breaking research in physics to real situations," said Liverpool researcher Dr. Andrew Boston. "CANBERRA is the leader in this market, so combining expertise in this way benefits both parties enormously."

The researchers hope to refine an already commonly used method for identifying and counting radioactive isotopes. In this method, a high-resolution germanium detector measures the full gamma ray spectrum emanated from an area, allowing researchers to identify and count individual radioactive isotopes of different kinds. The Liverpool researchers will be working to test new algorithms that might reduce the time required to analyze samples, increase the sensitivity of the measuring device, reduce the need for corrections and increase the accuracy of final radiation counts.

A more sensitive radiation-measuring device could be useful in safety, environmental and security applications. For example, such a device could speed security checkpoints at airports that test for radioactive material.

"The University of Liverpool is recognized as a world leader in detector research and has access to great facilities, so we are moving in a common direction which will deliver enormous benefits to both organizations and the measurement community as a whole," said James Cocks, Vice President for Research and Development at CANBERRA.

The project is being funded by a 500,000-pound ($800,000) grant from the Science and Technology Facilities Council and is expected to last three years.

Rapid gene testing

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) is funding a multi-year project intended to lead to the development of a device that can analyze a person's genes to determine how much radiation they have been exposed to. The project is being conducted by researchers from Arizona State University (ASU), Columbia University Medical Center, the University of Illinois-Chicago and HTG Molecular Diagnostics, Inc.

"As Japan's tsunami and resulting nuclear crisis has demonstrated, there is an urgent societal need to rapidly assess an at risk population's exposure to radiation," said lead researcher Lee Cheatham of ASU. "Our ultimate goal is to develop a diagnostic system that would ensure that medical responders have the information necessary to provide appropriate medical treatment and ensure human health and safety."

Currently, there is no FDA-approved device to rapidly test large numbers of people for radiation exposure, as would be required in a nuclear emergency or attack. The ASU-led project hopes to eventually develop and manufacture a device that could be used in such emergencies to help health professionals make triage and treatment decisions quickly.

The researchers plan to make use of a "biomarker signature," composed of several specific markers of gene expression. They hope to develop a method to rapidly test human blood samples for changes in these specific markers that could accurately indicate how much radiation a person has been exposed to.

By the time it is completed, the project may have cost $35.44 million.

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