If it works at all, decontaminating victims of radiation poisoning can take years--even with the best experimental drugs. Now, scientists at the University of California's Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory (LBL) have designed a chemical agent that promises far better results. The synthetic substance is based on small molecules called siderophores, which are secreted by some microorganisms to trap iron needed in their biological processes.
The new agent, from an LBL group led by chemist Kenneth N. Raymond, binds tightly to radioactive plutonium and strips it from the proteins that otherwise trap it inside the body. Once free, the highly toxic substance can be passed out of the body through the kidneys. In lab tests, Raymond's substance took just one day to remove up to 90% of the plutonium injected in lab mice--a level of reduction that currently can take years in humans. But because the agent is difficult to produce and toxic in high doses, it won't be tried on people for years. Meantime, Raymond is working on similar agents that could trap plutonium even more effectively. And he is optimistic that the substances can one day be used to remove radioactive waste from the environment.