Inside the Mission to Perform Bone-Marrow Transplants on Survivors of the Chernobyl Disaster

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tags: Cold War, Soviet Union, Chernobyl, nuclear power

On May 2, 1986, while visiting my long-term colleague and friend Richard O’Reilly, the head of bone marrow transplantation at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, I received a strange phone call. It was from Richard Champlin, who worked at the Bone Marrow Transplant Center at UCLA. He tended to speak very fast, so it took me some time to understand from his over-excited voice that he was about to leave the next day for Moscow.

He was headed to perform bone-marrow transplants on an unknown number of survivors of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which had taken place a few days earlier, on April 26. Robert Gale, the head of the UCLA program, was already there. And, Champlin told me, they wanted me to join them.

The Chernobyl survivors had been exposed to radiation from the damaged reactor. Because the bone marrow is our site for daily blood cell production, the blood-cell progenitors residing in the bone marrow are constantly dividing. In general, dividing cells in our body are more sensitive and prone to die upon exposure to radiation. Thus, exposure to high doses of radiation is associated with failure to maintain the blood system, a possibly lethal condition that can be corrected by bone-marrow transplantation.

My experience with bone-marrow transplants was based on treating children with immune disorders (“Bubble children”) and leukemia patients, but the Chernobyl team knew that I had developed a method to “clean” the marrow so that transplants could be done without a perfect match between donor and recipients—something that would be useful in the aftermath of the disaster. Not long after that first call, I received another, from Bob Gale in Moscow, who explained to me in no uncertain terms that the Russians wanted me to join the team, and that he and the Russian health minister would wait for me upon landing and get me through immigration even without a visa on my Israeli passport, and despite the fact that the Soviet Union had ended diplomatic relations with Israel in the 1960s.

Read entire article at TIME

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