Radiation suits are big business, but they haven’t advanced much since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s not as though there haven’t been incidents either. There was the Soviet submarine K-19’s accident, Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe and the Fukushima disaster in 2011. Perhaps the last two have the biggest impact on the future of radiation protection, according to Gideon Waterman of StemRad, a Tel Aviv company producing the world’s first radiation suit specifically designed to protect against gamma rays.
“There’s a huge difference between Gamma and X-rays. They are similar in how they work but their energy levels are very different. X-rays are stopped with a very low level of lead. Gammas have much higher energy,” Waterman explains, in what he admits is definitely a simple way of putting it. Their first product, the 360 Gamma, is marketed to nuclear scientists and first responders.
He says, “You need a lot of heavy material to protect against gamma. For a whole body suit, for gamma, you need heavy metals like lead or tungsten.”
What is remarkable about the suits is that their extra protection isn’t full body. It merely girds your loins, gentlemen. The reason? Bone marrow.
There haven’t been many opportunities to learn how radiation poisons people. Of course there was the first instances in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but there was little chance to study the bombings’ immediate effects. The first major opportunity came while treating Chernobyl’s first responders.
“With acute radiation syndrome (ARS), sufferers die of hematopoietic subsyndrome within two weeks or a month. In Chernobyl, they tried to give firefighters bone marrow transplants, but it was more difficult than blood transplants,” Waterman tells us.
Indeed, the five first responders to Chernobyl who received bone marrow transplants were still alive in July 1986, though six of their colleagues who had received fetal liver tissue transplants had died by that point.
“[Different] parts of the body aren’t equally sensitive to radiation. It turns out the most sensitive are the ones [with the cells] most rapidly dividing: hematopoietic stem cells in active bone marrow that can regenerate themselves and differentiate into all the blood cells in the body,” he says, referring to platelets, red blood cells and white blood cells.
Waterman says StemRad has been working in conjunction with the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). The testing is as interesting as it is morbid. Exposing special mannequins called phantoms to heavy doses of radiation, they include real skeletons donated to science which are encased in a plastic with the “same density and atomic composition” as soft body tissue. After exposure, the phantoms are industrially sliced into 2.5 cm layers (you read that right) and individually analyzed for levels of radioactivity by sensors pre-placed into the mannequin.
The rest of the body still uses conventional protection equipment and a respirator. That protects against the particulates that are sent out by conventional nuclear blasts, which Waterman says are actually quite large so can be captured by air filters. Other places you think gamma rays might hit the body hard already have some protection from abdominal soft tissue, a factor for StemRad’s developers in designing the configuration of their suits to focus on more exposed marrow.
Their primary product uses interchanging layers of lead and teflon around the pelvic area. It only takes between 2.5% and 5% of your bone marrow to regenerate a full supply of it within a month, says Waterman, meaning ensuring a minimum of marrow stays will ensure you survive.
“Before us there was no protection against gammas,” Waterman tells Geektime. “We’re not seeking to replace another piece of protective equipment.”
Why aren’t there more nuclear-focused startups?
If these events are so rare that they can be named, why would investors bother or customers buy into these products? Despite the low probability, they are still deemed ‘high consequence’ events. In other words, the stakes would be too high to be unprepared.
Understandably, the nuclear industry has a lot of regulation, pricing out would-be startups. The research as well demands enormous manpower and capital that standard amounts of seed funding couldn’t possibly cover.
That is where StemRad has an ability to grow. It’s providing a service that doesn’t require the same level of regulation or development.
“In nuclear, if you want to build a reactor for example, it’s expensive. I think of us almost not as a nuclear startup. We’re not building reactors or batteries. We’re providing radiation protection; we’re more a protective equipment company than a ‘nuclear’ company,” reiterates Waterman.
Shielding the next space age
At a suggested retail price of $7,000 per unit for the 360 Gamma, this is some serious armor. But imagine the value of their next big project: the AstroRad.
StemRad entered into an agreement with Lockheed Martin last year to develop a literal next generation spacesuit for future wayfarers to the Moon and Mars. Designed to protect astronauts from high energy ions during solar particle events and from galactic cosmic rays, perhaps one day StemRad’s technology could be used on NASA’s Orion Project and related space missions.
That kind of project gets Waterman on edge, in a good way.
“This is really a huge deal. Even me, I don’t usually think of how big a deal it really is. It’s the most efficient way of shielding people in deep space. It’s a real big problem in space exploration. I think we’re providing the best solution that exists today for that. If you think about it, going to Mars, it’s like the premiere achievement of mankind,” he posits.
These suits will compensate for the missing protection that Earth’s magnetic field provides, which astronauts who travel to the International Space Station and back enjoy.
Waterman tells us, “You’re working on this for 2030. To work on something like that and step back and think about is really exciting. To see an Israeli flag on this thing in 2030, something like that is really exciting.”
StemRad has 10 full-time employees with headquarters in Tel Aviv and subsidiary offices in Palo Alto. They have had a couple rounds of investments, mostly with angels but also Wanaka Capital Partners, a project of Odin Investments.