Why is Radiation Biology Funding Disappearing?

Atomic Insights has posted a number of articles about the health effects of low dose radiation that question the continuing use of the linear no-threshold dose response assumption. Those posts often attract passionate defenders of the status quo and occasionally stray into nastiness at the very idea of questioning the validity of regulatory standards based on the “no safe dose” extension of the linear theory.

I’m aware that my posts about LNT get shared in other forums and that the discussions there can get even more nasty. In fact, I was recently called “the evil criminal Rod Adams” in a Facebook group whose main mission, ironically enough, is to question the effects of fossil fuel mining and hydrocarbon consumption. My alleged criminal offense, apparently, was writing about the hormetic effect of chronic exposure to low dose radiation at a rate low enough to allow biological repair mechanisms to not only work, but to be stimulated into better than normal activity.

I try to make it clear in my posts on the topic that I am acting as technically competent writer who has read other people’s work and formed an opinion based on that work; I have not conducted original research in this area.

Many of the people who resist any challenge to the LNT assumption proclaim that there is either no evidence of the positive effects or state that the evidence is insufficient for a variety of reasons.

Since it is important to get this right, you would think that there would be substantial interest and support for radiation biology research so that more evidence can be developed. You would be wrong.

You might be surprised to find out that the Department of Energy’s low dose radiation research program, started in earnest more than a decade ago, has been essentially defunded.

However, before that happened, there were some intriguing results being reported. In January, I received the following announcement:

Hello everyone,

I thought I should share this exciting news with you. As some of you may know, my group at the Berkeley Lab has been measuring the impact of DNA damage on human cells for many years (http://newscenter.lbl.gov/news-releases/2011/12/20/low-dose-radiation/) and we have a good processing and bioinformatic pipeline to do high throughput quantification of DNA damage in individuals from blood cells.

We patented a lot of this process and we are now in beta-phase to deploy this kit to the public. We have taken care of all ethical regulations such as IRB, so anyone who wants to use our kit can simply sign a consent form when receiving the kit. We are currently doing a large online outreach to let people test the kit: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/exogen-bio-how-damaged-is-your-dna.

I believe this technology would be very helpful in dissipating fears from radiation. Indeed, what we observed so far is that damages from simple exercise such as running (oxidative stress) can be higher than damages from significant doses of ionizing radiation (10 mGy). Having this kit available to nuclear workers, radiologists or pilots, would allow these workers to get a readout of their biological dose before and after exposure. Do we see an accumulation of DNA breaks in these groups of people? Or are they in fact adapting to DNA damages, showing lower levels of damage?

If you are interested, the company is willing to create a cost effective package to monitor workers and make it available online during our campaign. So, feel free to contact me and forward this to anyone else who would be interested in launching a monitoring program with us!

All the best,

Sylvain
—-
Sylvain Costes, Ph.D.
CEO and co-founder
Exogen Biotechnology Inc.
Group Leader at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

I sent the below note to Dr. Costes to learn more about the effects of the elimination of the low dose radiation research program. The resort to crowd funding at indigogo was a little disturbing, considering the potential value of continuing the research. (By the way, the total low dose radiation research program funding, even at its peak was only about $28 million per year.)

Dr. Costes

This is exciting news.

I have some follow up questions. It is my understanding that your lab’s research was at least partially funded by the DOE’s low dose radiation research program.

How did the decision to close that program and remove its funding affect your continuing efforts? Did you reach a conclusion before the funding was eliminated or were there still productive and promising research paths remaining to be explored?

Dr. Costes responded almost immediately with the following:

Dear Rod,

The low dose program is continuing with much lower funds. We are still publishing on the topics and part of the technology we just launched at Exogen was born from this funding…
I could point you to our recent publications if you are interested.

My response on January 29, 2014, as shown below, apparently got buried in Dr. Costes’s inbox. Unfortunately, I can be a little overwhelmed myself at times, so I neglected to follow through.

Sylvain:

Please point me to your recent publications.

Can you explain how the much lower funds have affected the pace of your work? Are you concerned about repercussions?

Rod

Yesterday, I received the following, somewhat depressing response.

Hi Rod,

Sorry, I just realized that I never replied. Publications have gone down, mainly because we are too busy writing grants. Competition is unbelievable.
Funding has been cut and seems to continue going down for radiation biology. I think repercussions will be terrible and we are on the verge of losing many young scientists in this field. Quite unfortunate.

Recent publications:
http://biocomp.lbl.gov/publications.html

All the best,

Sylvain

If you recognize the importance of replacing the LNT assumption as the basis of radiation regulations, please write a letter to your representative and your senator informing them about the importance of federally-funded research in this important area. Regulations that acknowledge that there are safe doses of radiation have the potential to save taxpayers many billions of dollars in site clean up, to save many billions more in nuclear waste repository costs, and to enable hundreds of billions in new business in radiation-related technologies in energy and life saving medical treatments.

Even if you think that there is nothing wrong with the LNT, please support the basic research needed to move that model from being just an assumption and a conservative basis for regulation to being something that can be proven — or disproven — by accurate data.

Since nuclear energy and other radiation-related technology have been under severe attack from competitive technologies for the past 50 years, I am suspicious of the motivations that led to decision to defund the program. A $28 million program is essentially decimal dust within the $30 billion or so that the DOE spends every year, much of which goes to cleaning up former weapons sites to radiation contamination levels set at fractions of normal background under the “no safe dose” assumption.

That clean-up spending is income for some politically well-connected corporations and states. As Ted Rockwell said, “That money does not disappear into a rat-hole. It winds up in rats’ pocket.”

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