Researcher at ORAU finds way to gauge wounds' radiation contamination

Louisiana State University graduate student Anthony Davila spent this summer deep in research that he’ll likely see used almost immediately.

As an intern with Oak Ridge Associated Universities’ Visiting Faculty Research Program, Davila helped develop a way for medical professionals to more quickly and accurately determine the depth of nuclear contamination in wounds – possibly salvaging tissue that would otherwise be cut out in an abundance of caution.

Davila’s research specifically applies to people being treated for puncture wounds that are contaminated with nuclear material. That’s a rarity in most U.S. emergency departments but can be a weekly occurrence in Oak Ridge, where government employees and contractors are working with nuclear material on a daily basis in numerous ways, said Jason Davis, ORAU’s “subject matter expert” who oversaw Davila’s project.

Davis is a health physicist with the Department of Energy's REAC/TS: Radiation Emergency Assistance Center/Training Site, which ORAU manages. The internationally known program responds to radiation accidents 24-7 — both in Oak Ridge and anywhere else experts are called to. In addition, it trains medical personnel around the world to respond to radiation emergencies.

That’s why it’s likely Davila – who returned to LSU recently to analyze his data before issuing a report – will see the fruits of his summer labor more quickly than some researchers do.

“Honestly, it will probably be used almost right away,” Davis said.

Currently, the depth of radiation in a wound can be measured with the same equipment used to measure the depth of contamination in the ground — but the equipment is expensive, large and not portable, so it's not a practical method for medical providers to use. And while there have been advances in treating those who become contaminated from inhaling nuclear material, there’s been less movement in those who become contaminated by having it injected under their skin, Davila said.

Davila aimed to develop a standardized method to measure how deep the radiation goes in a wound, using portable, inexpensive equipment readily available in most medical centers. To do this, he injected nuclear material into a substitute for human tissue, a plastic-gelatin combination that behaves the same and is used in both research and teaching. Then he used a radiation detector to measure how deeply embedded the nuclear material was into the tissue, looking for a way to quickly and accurately determine the exact depth of contamination using the smaller, less expensive equipment.

Infection and continued exposure to radiation are the biggest risks of such a wound. Davis said the actual amount of radiation that could get into the bloodstream from a contaminated puncture wound is negligible, “but a lot of radionuclides are also heavy metals, so there’s the potential for kidney or liver damage” if the contaminated material stays in the body long-term.

Right now, doctors treating someone wounded with contaminated metal, for example, would remove deeper and deeper tissue samples around the wound, measuring radiation levels in the tissue they removed until the samples showed no evidence of contamination.

Though removing more and deeper layers of tissue usually means longer healing, in fattier parts of the body, with tissue to spare, that wouldn’t affect a person’s ability to function long-term, as long as the opening healed.

But if a puncture wound is on a hand, for example, having to sequentially remove deeper and deeper tissue samples raises the risk of damaging delicate nerves and muscles.

That’s where Davila’s research could improve the standard of care. By having a more accurate way to measure the depth of contamination at the beginning of treatment, doctors could preserve as much non-contaminated tissue as possible.

And that’s why his research might be used, at least in Oak Ridge, even before it’s published: It’s the same basic process that’s been used to measure depth of contamination, just more refined.

“It should translate almost directly” from the lab to the operating room, Davis said.

ORAU isn’t a school but a consortium of more than 120 colleges and universities that collaborate on research. Founded in 1942 as the Oak Ridge Institute for Nuclear Studies, it’s been a Department of Energy contractor for decades and now does work for a number of governmental departments and agencies. It funds the Visiting Faculty Research Program to support the mission of the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education, bringing faculty and interns from consortium partners to Oak Ridge to work on original research projects.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel, by Kristi L. Nelson

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Published August 23, 2018