Health: Radiation Technology Saving Limbs and Lives
Twenty-eight countries around the world use radiation technology in health care to sterilize human tissue grafts for transplant surgery, thanks largely to the IAEA's initiatives to assist in establishing medical facilities that serve as tissue banks for hospitals and clinics.
Tissue donations have been the subject of controversy over the years, particularly regarding the testing and screening of the transplant material for diseases and bacteria. Fortunately, most transplantable tissue, including bone, skin, amnion and other non-viable tissues, can be treated with ionizing radiation to kill bacteria and reduce the risk of transferring communicable diseases.
Other methods of sterilization using heat and chemicals have been used for a longer period of time, but neither is as precise as radiation disinfection. The use of irradiation allows the tissue to be sterilized in the final package, which dramatically lowers the risks of recontamination. Furthermore, heat and chemicals could potentially damage the tissue's biological composition, whereas irradiation has no effect on the tissue's properties.
The overall gross cost of the IAEA Department of Technical Cooperation's programme in "Radiation and Tissue Banking" since its inception in 1988 is about $6.4 million. The total value of the grafts produced in the framework of this programme is estimated to be almost $45 million, which gives the IAEA a cost/benefit return on its investment of over seven times. According to Mr. Qian, the main benefit is "undoubtedly the improvement in health care in the individual countries." While in Western countries, the use of such grafts is now routine, developing countries have previously relied on expensive imports. With their own tissue banks and trained surgeons, developing countries can pass on grafts to hospitals either free or at a minimal cost.
Technical training is crucial when dealing with radiation and the IAEA's Department of Technical Cooperation has been leading efforts to transfer knowledge in tissue banking techniques, including longstanding support to Sri Lanka to improve its tissue bank (pdf file) . Experts from developed countries such as the USA, Australia and Japan have supplied experts for training and at the same time have stimulated the use of the technique in their own countries. The IAEA also pioneered a radiation and tissue banking distance learning programme with the University of Singapore. The year-long programme, with a curriculum in English and Spanish, has trained 280 doctors and support staff from around the globe and 65 have earned a University of Singapore Diploma in Radiation and Tissue Banking.