A double drug therapy has been shown to help 80% of mice survive a dose of radiation which would killed 95% of untreated mice within 30 days. Radiation damages rapidly dividing cells in the intestine, allowing harmful bacteria to leak into the bloodstream. Eva Guinan at Harvard Medical School found that boosting levels of a protein involved in the immune response against the bacteria – while simultaneously giving an antibiotic helped the mice to survive. The protein and antibiotic are both safe to use in people, and could be stockpiled in case of a nuclear accident. The drug combination can be given up to 24 hours after radiation exposure.
Identification of safe, effective treatments to mitigate toxicity after extensive radiation exposure has proven challenging. Only a limited number of candidate approaches have emerged, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve any agent for a mass-casualty radiation disaster. Because patients undergoing hematopoietic stem cell transplantation undergo radiation treatment that produces toxicities similar to radiation-disaster exposure, we studied patients early after such treatment to identify new approaches to this problem. Patients rapidly developed endotoxemia and reduced plasma bactericidal/permeability-increasing protein (BPI), a potent endotoxin-neutralizing protein, in association with neutropenia. We hypothesized that a treatment supplying similar endotoxin-neutralizing activity might replace the BPI deficit and mitigate radiation toxicity and tested this idea in mice.
A single 7-Gy radiation dose, which killed 95% of the mice by 30 days, was followed 24 hours later by twice-daily, subcutaneous injections of the recombinant BPI fragment rBPI21 or vehicle alone for 14 or 30 days, with or without an oral fluoroquinolone antibiotic with broad-spectrum antibacterial activity, including that against endotoxin-bearing Gram-negative bacteria. Compared to either fluoroquinolone alone or vehicle plus fluoroquinolone, the combined rBPI21 plus fluoroquinolone treatment improved survival, accelerated hematopoietic recovery, and promoted expansion of stem and progenitor cells. The observed efficacy of rBPI21 plus fluoroquinolone initiated 24 hours after lethal irradiation, combined with their established favorable bioactivity and safety profiles in critically ill humans, suggests the potential clinical use of this radiation mitigation strategy and supports its further evaluation.