Can Science Find An Antidote To Americium?

12:16 minutes

americium element on the periodic table
Credit: Shutterstock

With some poisons, there’s an antidote—something you can take to block the effects of the poison, or to help remove it from your body.  But when the harmful chemical is a radioactive element, options are limited. Iodine pills can be used to help block radioactive iodine I131 from being absorbed by the thyroid, but there aren’t many other drugs that can help deal with contamination with other radioactive substances. One of the two existing medications can only be delivered via IV in a clinic. 

This week, the NIH announced the start of an early clinical trial for an oral drug delivered as a tablet that could potentially be used to bind and remove radioactive elements including plutonium, uranium and neptunium from the body. Rachel Feltman, editor at large at Popular Science, joins Ira to talk about that trial and other stories from the week in science, including an experimental universal flu vaccine, research into the amount of trace DNA humans shed every day, and an update on the planet Saturn’s  moon count.

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Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, a look at some of the scientific misconceptions around weight and health and a case of a crow conundrum in Baltimore. But first, with some poisons, there’s an antidote, something you can take to block the effects of the poison or to help clean it from your body.

But when the harmful chemical is a radioactive element, options are limited. Iodine pills can be used to help block radioactive iodine isotopes from being absorbed by the thyroid, but there aren’t many other drugs that can help deal with contamination from radioactive materials. This week, though, the NIH announced the start of an early clinical trial for an oral drug that could potentially be used to bind and remove radioactive elements, like plutonium, uranium, neptunium, from the body.

Joining me now to talk about that other stories from the week in science is Rachel Feltman, editor at large at Popular Science. Welcome back to Science Friday.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Thanks for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: You’re Welcome. OK, tell me more about this radiation– potential radiation treatment.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, so right now, there are a couple of options that serve to basically pull radiation from the body right after contamination, but they’re both administered by IV. And recently, in a move that I found a little existentially nauseating personally, the FDA said we really need more drugs to combat radioactive contamination. We want to find more options that prevent acute radiation syndrome, which is the very severe illness that can happen when you’re exposed to ionizing radiation.

And they said we really need things that are easier to stockpile, like oral pills, and we need to fast track those. So while that new set of guidelines from the FDA is still pending, this new trial is definitely part of that wave of enthusiasm.

IRA FLATOW: But how do you do a trial of something like this? You can’t expose people to plutonium and see what happens, can you?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Exactly. You definitely can’t. And that was why the FDA put out those guidelines. Kind of the point of them was saying that, from now on, drugs in this category will be tested for their efficacy in nonhuman animals, and then they’ll only have to prove their safety in humans, which, again, is something you have to do when a drug just cannot be tested ethically on a human. You can’t dose a human with plutonium just to make sure it works.

So now we have this drug that’s shown quite good efficacy in nonhuman animals, and so basically a few dozen healthy participants are going to go on higher and higher doses of the drug. And if they get up to the maximum dose, then that is great information about our ability to use these drugs in humans.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, then we’ll just stockpile them.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yep, and hope we never need them.

IRA FLATOW: Hope we never need them. On another serious medical note, we’ve all seen the power of the mRNA technology with the COVID vaccines. Researchers are now trying to use a similar technique for a universal flu vaccine. That sounds promising.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. We’ve wanted universal flu vaccines for ages, of course. But there are so many strains of the flu, and it mutates so quickly. And historically, the best we’ve been able to do is, every year, there’s this very intense academic scramble of trying to guesstimate to the best of our scientific ability what the predominant flu strains will be and then create a vaccine that protects against those one to three strains, let’s say.

And you can’t just pack all of the possible strains in there because primarily of the way we make vaccines right now. It’s just so much material to work with. And what’s cool about mRNA vaccines is that, instead of carrying the thing that the body needs to learn to fight, it carries instructions in this messenger RNA that tells the body what kind of defense to mount. So

It’s like instead of a wanted poster, it’s more like tips and survival tricks, life hacks.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, yeah.

RACHEL FELTMAN: So this is just one way that researchers are working on making a more robust, universally effective flu vaccine. But the mRNA technique is definitely helpful in that it allows you to target a broader swath of strains without having to literally pack in information about each one. And probably this vaccine wouldn’t be the kind that kept you from getting the flu, but it would drastically lower your risk of severe illness. And that would be for every strain.

IRA FLATOW: That’s pretty cool, too.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, totally.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to something a little less scary than radiation treatments but maybe scary for a different reason. And I’m talking about new research on finding traces of human DNA everywhere.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, absolutely everywhere. Researchers for years now have been using environmental DNA, or eDNA, to study lots of ecological and biological questions. Basically, they’re taking samples from soil or water or air and just seeing what all DNA is in there as sort of a scattershot evidence. And researchers have known for a long time that that meant probably there was human DNA in there that you could also analyze. And some researchers who primarily study endangered sea turtles, decided to do a study seeing, let’s just check in on how big of a security risk this actually is.

Unfortunately, the answer was a big one. They took a bunch of random environmental samples and found human DNA in almost all of them. And most of the samples were high quality enough to analyze for sequencing. They took samples from footprints in the sand on the beach and were able to yield like partial sex chromosomes and pieces of people’s genetic ancestry.

IRA FLATOW: Wait a minute, there is enough DNA in footprints on a sandy beach.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, we are always setting DNA everywhere, and scientists have gotten really good at sequencing it. There were a couple of remote areas they tested, I guess, as a control. So they looked at one uninhabited island and another very distant mountain tributary, and in those two, there was no human DNA. But everywhere they looked where humans trafficked, they found at least partially identifiable DNA.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, think of the privacy problems here.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, yeah, and it’s one of those things where it’s probably not something most of us have to worry about. But it is an important concern to keep in mind. Some bioethicist somewhere is probably has a real tummy ache over this, and I don’t envy them.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, I’m getting one right now. A few weeks ago, we talked about the death cap mushroom and how it’s spreading in some parts of the country. But there’s news this week on just why it’s so deadly, and maybe they have found an antidote.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, so Amanita death caps are responsible for something like 90% of mushroom-related deaths globally, and one issue is that fungal toxins are notoriously poorly understood and studied. I did some mycology in undergrad, and my professor warned us all that if we ever suspected basically any kind of fungal contaminant, we should understand that the emergency room doctor might less than we did.

IRA FLATOW: Oh my goodness.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah. Things have definitely moved since then, but it’s still an area where there’s a lot of room for research. And fortunately, this new study is really exciting. Basically, researchers took human cells, and they were editing them to break individual genes while feeding them the toxin that Amanita mushrooms produce. And when they found ones that survived, they were like, OK, this is the gene that was mutated there, so let’s start looking at things that interrupt that gene in human cells because maybe this keeps the toxin from getting to the liver.

And they found this very innocuous iodide-based dye that’s been used in humans since the ’50s. It’s used to diagnose eye disease that seems to, at least in mice, it improved survival rates by up to 50%, which is pretty big.

IRA FLATOW: No kidding.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, because, right now, if you get Amanita poisoning, you are quite likely to need a liver transplant. That’s how little there is that can be done, yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. You might want to send this news back to you professor there, undergraduate. Let’s finish up with a couple of space stories because we all love space stories here.


IRA FLATOW: I know we all keep an eye on the weather heading into the weekend, but there’s news this week about a possible improvement in space weather forecasting. Tell us about that.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, so as many people know, solar weather, solar flares coming off the sun, is a concern, and most of the time, it’s not a huge deal. But there have been a couple of historical events, the biggest one, the Carrington Event in 1859, where this geomagnetic storm set telegraph stations on fire and shut down communications. And we have a lot more stuff that would be interrupted by a storm like that these days.

IRA FLATOW: Just a bit more.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yeah, not just the telegram machines. So NASA has announced that, using a combination of actual satellite data and an AI model called DAGGER, they have developed the most accurate, timely detection system that would essentially give us like 30-minute warnings for exactly where a serious solar storm was going to hit.

IRA FLATOW: 30 minutes is enough time?

RACHEL FELTMAN: Well, so we already have capabilities to say, within the next day or the next 12 hours, there might be some serious activity. And this is 30 minutes. It would be like a tornado warning, right here, right now.

And it doesn’t sound like a lot of time, but the thing is that a big risk with these kinds of storms is the chaos and confusion. Because communications are shutting down, the internet goes away. Cell towers go down. So having that 30 minutes, assuming that cities and states put in the work to set up preventative measures and a plan, that 30 minutes is plenty of time to make sure people know that this is about to happen, which would actually solve a lot of the potential problems.

IRA FLATOW: An early warning system, where have I heard that before? Finally, finally a change in the honor of the mooniest planet in the solar system, envelope please.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes, so Saturn has catapulted back into first place in the moon race. It now has a tally of 145 recognized moons, and about half of those are new. And it has overtaken Jupiter, which has 95 moons. And this also makes it the first planet to have more than 100 confirmed moons in total, so.

IRA FLATOW: What’s the definition of a moon? If you look at satellites, the rings of Saturn, they could all be these– those individual particles could be moons if you want to get picky.

RACHEL FELTMAN: So it comes down to the size and the stability of the orbit. So there’s actually a distinction they make between regular moons and irregular moons, which gets down to the specifics of the orbit. But these are all objects of size.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, somewhere, Pluto is laughing at all of this.

RACHEL FELTMAN: Yes, yes, absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Rachel.


IRA FLATOW: Rachel Feltman, editor at large at Popular Science based in New York.

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