ASCO Members Reflect on ‘Lessons From Chernobyl’

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Robert Peter Gale, MD, PhD, FACP

Today we face not only the risks of nuclear accidents, but also nuclear terrorism, and it’s not inconceivable that any hematologist or oncologist could encounter these kinds of events. It’s quite important that oncologists are up to speed on radiation biology.

—Robert Peter Gale, MD, PhD, FACP

As part of ASCO’s 50th anniversary, the Society has published a weekly series on special moments in its history. In this edition of The ASCO Post, we revisit a unique time when ASCO’s history intersected with major world events. To read the entire series, visit the “News and Views” page on CancerProgress.Net.

On April 26, 1986, the world witnessed the worst nuclear disaster in history. After a surge of power during a reactor systems test destroyed Unit 4 at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the former Soviet Union, a fire erupted, releasing dangerous amounts of radioactive material.

Many of Chernobyl’s employees were able to evacuate immediately following the accident. Local firefighters, however, were called upon to extinguish the flames, exposing them to deadly levels of radiation. Although the explosion increased radiation levels across Europe, residents living in areas closest to Chernobyl experienced the worst side effects of exposure.

Radiation Exposure Side Effects

ASCO member Robert Peter Gale, MD, PhD, FACP, an Associate Professor of Medicine at UCLA who had followed Soviet nuclear activity for many years, decided to contact Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev through Armand Hammer, an American businessman with ties to the Soviet Union, to offer to help. Dr. Gale had gained the trust of Soviet leaders through several previous meetings in years past and his offer was accepted.

He traveled to Moscow to work in a hospital specializing in care for patients exposed to radiation. Eventually, Dr. Gale was allowed to bring ASCO member and UCLA colleague Richard E. Champlin, MD, UCLA physician and researcher Paul I.
Terasaki, MD
, and immunologist Yair Reisner, PhD.

The small team of doctors worked with Russian colleagues to perform several bone marrow transplants in attempts save the lives of those exposed to the highest levels of radiation. As Dr. Champlin explains, many of the patients not only faced the effects of radiation exposure, but also had severe external burns caused by the fire.

“Because of the extent of their injuries, many of the patients died weeks after the accident. However, at least two people had the transplant work, allowing them to recover blood counts fast enough to survive,” recalled Dr. Champlin.

Radiation accidents are especially difficult given the unpredictable nature of the long-term health effects, including several forms of cancer, which places oncologists and hematologists in a critical role. Because many radiation side effects are not immediately detectable and instead require ongoing surveillance, Dr. Gale often travels back to monitor ongoing developments.

Learning From the Past

In 1987, Dr. Gale led, “Lessons from Chernobyl,” a standing-room-only session at ASCO’s Annual Meeting.

“These kinds of activities were unprecedented, medically and politically, so many people were interested in the medical and technological part of our activities, while others were equally interested in the politics that allowed us to enter into the Soviet Union,” said Dr. Gale.

The experiences with Chernobyl influenced the later work of both Drs. Gale and Champlin. Dr. Champlin, now Chair of the Department of Stem Cell Transplantation & Cellular Therapy at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, said his work in Chernobyl provided him with rare insight on radiation therapy and the use of transplantation.

Since 1986, Dr. Gale, now Visiting Professor of Hematology at Imperial College London and an international authority on the health effects of nuclear disasters, has traveled to Brazil and Japan following similar nuclear accidents. In much of his work, Dr. Gale urges oncologists to learn more about treatments for radiation exposure.

“Today we face not only the risks of nuclear accidents, but also nuclear terrorism, and it’s not inconceivable that any hematologist or oncologist could encounter these kinds of events,” said Dr. Gale.

“It’s quite important that oncologists are up to speed on radiation biology.” ■

© 2014. American Society of Clinical Oncology. All rights reserved.





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