I recently watched Skyfall, the new James Bond film, and it made me think of spy’s. More importantly, how they die in movies (and real life). I kept thinking of From Russia with Love and Rosa Klebb who tried to kill Bond with a poisoned knife in her shoe. From poisons, I started to think of the few occasions people have died from deliberate radiation poisoning, and it came full circle back to my previous research.
When I performed DNA repair and cancer research, I routinely worked with many different isotopes of radioactivity. When I was doing so in one laboratory, I had a special colored lab coat to wear to inform everyone that I was performing work with Indium. The reactions to that green lab coat were quite amazing to me. Individuals would literally walk out of the room so that they wouldn’t be near me. I was performing the experiments using the correct protective equipment and shielding, but still my colleagues preferred to be elsewhere. This was incredibly surprising for me as we were working in a radiation oncology department where the use of radioactivity was fairly standard, and I had been handling it for years so was more than competent. So what was the issue?
There is something to be said for being cautious, but I would hope that once you understand the risks, people would not mind being around you knowing you are working safely. When radioactive materials were first discovered by Henri Becquerel and the power couple of Pierre and Marie Curie, they were thought to cure everything and generally “energise people.” I shudder at the thought, but spa’s would put uranium in the water to rejuvenate visitors, beauty creams were available to clear the complexion, Radithor, radioactive water, was for sale as a tonic! That was all before the side effects became known.
This began with the sad tale of the young ladies who painted luminous watch faces, but died from licking paint brushes which contained radium (known as the Radium girls). Considering everyone was taking it to be healthy, they painted their nails, dripped it on their hair and didn’t mind making the paint brush tip pointed with their mouths. It wasn’t for a few years until the girls began mysteriously dying from a wasting disease with terrible joint and bone issues that a potential issue was raised. The great minds who discovered radiation where not immune and faced the consequences of their pioneering research. It is speculation that Pierre Curie died from stumbling in front of a horse drawn carriage due to radiation induced fatigue. Marie Curie died from aplastic anemia brought about from her years of radiation exposure (she used to carry vials in her pockets to admire the glow) and encourage donations for future research. Irene Joliot-Curie, their daughter, died of leukemia probably also due to her research (I recall that she may have been the first individual to die of Polonium poisoning).
So what does the general public think of radiation? I assume they think it is incredibly dangerous. With the very well publicized assassination of the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko, and the rumored assassination of Yasser Arafat, both using Polonium-210, there is clear, recent evidence that it isn’t just a danger of the past when the implications of it weren’t clear. However, it can also do some great things and hopefully the fantastical spy thrillers and amazing true stories won’t limit the good it can potentially do.
Many cancer treatments and imaging modalities utilize certain radioactive isotopes which have extremely short half lives. This means that within a short period of time, the individual is not radioactive. The type of radioactive decay also means that people around them do not become exposed, and they could only get a significant dose if they were near/ingest/inhale bodily products of the patient.
In some instances, it is standard to “quarantine” the patient until they are safe for the general public (even then, they are usually told to limit exposure to the elderly or children for a few days). I used to research targeted radiotherapeutics and firmly believe that they are the cancer imaging and treatments of the future. Although it would be a little scary for the average person to be injected with an isotope, it has become so routine for certain diseases (radioactive iodine for thyroid cancer for example) that I hope that in the future these potential wonder drugs will treat many other kinds of cancer.
This is where we scientists can do so much good. We can explain our research in the simplest of terms so that lay people can understand. When I presented my previous data, many lay people were initially very concerned. However, once they understood the beauty of the Indium isotope, they realized the amazing promise Indium treatments hold. I just hope that should the time come where the treatment is a reality, good old spy films won’t prevent people from taking the treatments which could ultimately save their lives.