Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute (Bethesda, MD)

Only U.S. citizens will be considered for positions at this lab. Dual Citizens will be considered for this facility.

Mission: To protect humankind through research that advances the understanding of the effects of ionizing radiation.

The unique resources of the Armed Forces Radiobiology Research Institute enable advancements in the protection of soldiers and citizens. 
To meet mission requirements, the institute collaborates with other government facilities, academic institutions, and civilian laboratories in the United States and other countries to research the biological effects of ionizing radiation. In addition, it provides medical training and emergency response to manage incidents related to radiation exposure.
AFRRI, an institute of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, is located on the grounds of the Naval Support Activity Bethesda, also home to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
  • Pursue new drugs that will prevent the life-threatening and health-degrading effects of ionizing radiation and move those drugs from discovery through the Food and Drug Administration approval process.
  • Develop methods of rapidly assessing radiation exposure to assure appropriate medical treatment.
  • Investigate the effects of radiation injury combined with other challenges such as trauma, disease, and chemical exposures.
  • Contribute to the knowledge base that is useful in understanding, for example, the effects of space radiation on astronauts.
AFRRI research focuses on methods to prevent, assess, and treat injuries resulting from the effects of ionizing radiation.  There are 4 major research areas at AFRRI:
  • Biological Dosimetry
  • Radiation Combined Injury
  • Internal Contamination/Toxic Metals
  • Radiation Countermeasures
Biological Dosimetry
Mission: Develop rapid, high-precision analytical methods that assess radiation exposure doses from clinical samples and thus aid in the triage and medical management of radiological casualties for military personnel and civilian responders.
  • Automate, field deployable, biological dosimetry capabilities for rapid battlefield dose assessment
  • Establish reference biological dosimetry for definitive analysis of biological samples from theater operations
  • Identification and validation of biomarkers for late radiation effects
Biodosimetry actions are needed in suspected overexposures.
  • Perform measurements and bioassay, if appropriate, to determine external or internal contamination with radioactivity.
  • Record physical dosimetry measurements, if available.
  • Observe/record prodromal signs/symptoms.
  • Obtain a complete blood cell count with white blood cell differential immediately, and then three times a day for the following 3–6 days.
  • Contact a qualified laboratory to evaluate chromosome-aberration cytogenetic bioassay performance using the "gold standard" dicentric assay (translocation assay for long times after exposure) for dose assessment.
  • Consider other opportunistic dosimetry approaches as available.
Radiation Injury Combined with Other Trauma
Mission: To develop medical treatments for irradiated personnel whose exposure is compounded by traumatic wounds, burns, hemorrhage, and/or infection. Treatment strategies under investigation include biological response modifiers, new antimicrobial agents, probiotics, and stem cells, used individually or in combination.
  • Develop a comprehensive understanding of the biology of radiation injury combined with traumatic wounds, burns, hemorrhage, or infections.
  • Establish a good understanding of countermeasure drugs for radiation, wounding, burn, hemorrhage, or infection.
  • Use knowledge of processes involved in radiation combined injury and countermeasures to identify and assess novel drug candidates.
  • Collaborate proactively with other research institutions, pharmaceutical firms, and government agencies to develop and obtain approval for promising countermeasures for use in the field and the clinic.
The Radiation Injury Combined with Other Trauma Program, since establishment in 2007, has reached the following findings:
  • Ionizing radiation causes morbidity and mortality.
  • Mortality is caused by damage to the blood-forming system (<10 Gy) or the gastrointestinal (GI) system (>10 Gy).
  • Trauma from wounds, burns, or bacterial infections increases ionizing radiation-induced mortality.
  • Increased mortality may be due to excessive iNOS activation, excessive cytokine concentrations, and excessive bacterial infection that lead to multiple organ dysfunction syndrome and multiple organ failure.
  • Radiation injury combined with wound trauma thins ileal villi and serosa layers (GI), results in a smaller healing bud (skin) at the wound.
  • Military personnel and emergency responders urgently need nontoxic countermeasures to radiation combined injury
  • The only approved countermeasures that can be used in the field are drugs that block the effects of several specific internalized radioisotopes.  There are no approved drugs that can be used outside the clinic to ameliorate the effects of external ionizing radiation combined injury on the blood-forming or GI systems.
Internal Contamination and Metal Toxicity
Mission: To determine whether the short-term and long-term radiological and toxicological risks of embedded metals warrant changes in the current combat and postcombat fragment removal policies for military personnel and, in the case of internalized radiological hazards, to investigate treatment strategies to enhance elimination of these metals from the body.
  • Develop a tier-testing model for assessing the health effects of embedded metal fragments.
  • Investigate new decorporation protocols for the elimination of internalized radionuclides, especially those isotopes expected to be used in radiological dispersal devices (“dirty bombs”).
  • Study the long-term health effects resulting from exposure to depleted uranium (DU), as well as biomarkers that can distinguish this exposure from other toxic insults.
  • Research on the chemical and radiological toxicity of embedded fragments is applicable to a variety of battlefield scenarios as well as terrorism events.
  • The first widespread combat use of depleted uranium occurred in the First Gulf War. Due to "friendly-fire" incidents, several coalition personnel suffered wounds containing embedded fragments of depleted uranium. Because of the unique chemical and radiological properties of depleted uranium, concern was raised over the long-term health effects of these embedded fragments.
  • Since the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, the use of a radiological dispersal device or "dirty bomb" has become a critical concern. Many of the injuries suffered in such an event will be similar to those found in depleted uranium-wounded personnel.
  • Research conducted at AFRRI was instrumental in the formulation of the U.S. Army policy dealing with injuries from depleted uranium. As munitions developers move away from the use of depleted uranium in armor-piercing shells, AFRRI researchers continue to assess the health effects of the replacement metals.
Radiation Countermeasures
Mission: To develop pharmacological countermeasures to radiation injury that can be used by military personnel and emergency responders.
  • Develop a better understanding of the biology of radiation injury and radiation countermeasure drugs.
  • Use knowledge of processes involved in radiation injury and countermeasures to identify and assess novel drug candidates.
  • Collaborate proactively with other research institutions, pharmaceutical firms, and government agencies to develop and obtain approval for radiation countermeasures for use in the field and the clinic. 
  • Ionizing radiation at certain doses damages the blood-forming system.
  • This results in fewer blood cells and platelets in the circulatory system.
  • White blood cells form part of the immune system: they attack infectious microorganisms. Platelets form clots and prevent uncontrolled bleeding.
  • Therefore, susceptibility to infection and hemorrhage increase after exposure to radiation.
  • These can cause death at a certain range of radiation doses (hematopoietic syndrome). Higher radiation doses cause death by damaging the gastrointestinal (GI) system or the central nervous system. There is some overlap: mortality due to the hematopoietic syndrome can be exacerbated by compromise of the GI barrier to bacteria.
  • The concepts of sub-syndromes such as hematopoietic syndrome and GI syndrome now are being influenced by an appreciation of inter-tissue communication and synergies during ARS. Although the sub-syndrome terminology can be useful in some contexts, it is recognized that mortality is due to multi-organ dysfunction leading to multi-organ failure.
  • Lower doses of radiation can increase the probability of cancer. (The probability of late effects such as cancer would also increase after higher radiation doses, in people who survived the acute effects.)

For information:

Grant Severson 301-295-9899

MAJ Robert McMahon