CPPS alumna research helps Homeland Security in event of nuclear attack

Dr. Sara Dumit at WSU Pullman Campus Commencement Ceremony (2018)

WSU College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences alumna, Dr. Sara Dumit, was invited to attend the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting this past summer, which convenes in Lindau, Germany. This annual meeting gives the next generation of leading scientists in the world the chance to discuss global issues ranging from climate change to genome editing with Nobel Laureates. She is among the leading theorists working on the modeling of plutonium decorporation and the development of chelation models. These models help to better understand the movement of plutonium inside the human body during chelation therapy, otherwise known as the process of binding to heavy metals which is then removed from the body.

Dumit is currently a health physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and a Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting Alumna (2021). She earned her PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences from Washington State University in 2018. She conducted research at the United States Transuranium and Uranium Registries (USTUR) at WSU College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences (CPPS). Her postdoctoral research work was completed at LANL’s Internal Dosimetry Group – Radiation Protection Division.

Her research in internal dosimetry (health physics field), focuses on the strategically important field of actinide biokinetics, particularly where these biokinetics are affected by chelation therapy. Her areas of expertise include modeling of plutonium decorporation, development of chelation models, and medical countermeasures after actinide intakes (such as chelation therapy with a drug known as ‘DTPA’).

Dr. Sara Dumit at the official online photo booth for the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting (2021)

How does plutonium get inside the human body and what is chelation therapy?
Plutonium intake may occur mainly via inhalation and/or wound, which could happen either accidentally (e.g. an incident at a nuclear defense facility) or maliciously (e.g. a terrorist event).

Chelation therapy (with either drug agents Ca-DTPA or Zn-DTPA) is known to increase the rate of excretion of plutonium from the body (decorporation) by forming a stable complex (or a ‘chelate’) with plutonium in vivo. The goal of chelation therapy is, therefore, to eliminate plutonium and decrease the internal radiation dose inside the body. Both drug agents, Ca-DTPA and Zn-DTPA, have been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration to treat individuals with suspected or known significant internal exposure to plutonium.

Why is your research important?
My research work is important mostly for Homeland Security reasons, as plutonium is an undesirable element for people to have incorporated in their bodies, whether accidentally or maliciously. A chelation model can help us to better understand and predict the movement of plutonium, DTPA drug, and plutonium complexed (or ‘chelated’) with DTPA inside the body—including the enhanced excretion rate of plutonium during chelation therapy. Therefore, such a model can help researchers (internal dosimetrists) to better evaluate and assess the magnitude of the internal radiation dose delivered to organs and tissues in a timely manner.

How do you hope your research will one day contribute to the public?
I hope my research will contribute to the development of a consensus chelation model—for the advancement and refinement of internal radiation dose assessment, particularly in case of nuclear emergencies.

A standard/consensus chelation model may assist health physicists and medical staff in responding to a nuclear incident involving actinides, such as plutonium. The model may allow radiation safety professionals (especially internal dosimetrists) and physicians to make an early radiation dose estimate, refine the final radiation dose assessment, make an informative decision on the chelation therapy planning, and determine when the efficacy of chelation therapy declines.

USTUR staff group photo (from left to right): George Tabatadze, Margo Bedell, Stacey McComish, Sergei Tolmachev, Florencio Martinez, Maia Avtandilashvili, Sara Dumit, and Elizabeth Thomas at WSU Tri-Cities Campus (2016).

How did you become interested in this field of study?
I became interested in this field of study (known as Health Physics or Radiation Protection) after visiting Washington State University’s USTUR research facility in Richland, Washington. The USTUR Director, Dr. Sergei Tolmachev, and his staff provided me with a fascinating academic tour of their laboratory and also with lectures about their research portfolio, at their main office. I was very impressed with the uniqueness of the research and data available.

I learned that the USTUR is the only tissue repository that collects and preserves post-mortem tissue samples from workers in the US nuclear weapons complex. I was eager to learn more about the unique data they have available for research purposes, such as data from former nuclear workers who had plutonium intakes and were treated with chelation therapy. After some highly interesting discussions, Dr. Tolmachev invited me to join the USTUR for my PhD research work—which I wholeheartedly accepted in the fall semester of 2015.

Why did you choose WSU CPPS to do your PhD?
I chose WSU CPPS because of the opportunity to learn from world-renowned experts, the variety of areas of research available, the top-notch laboratory facilities and technology available, and also because of the multi-disciplinary and translational approaches that faculty use in the PhD program.

How has your education from WSU CPPS contributed to your success in the profession?
My journey at WSU CPPS positively contributed to my success in interdisciplinary research, and consequently in my current profession. During my first year as a PhD student, I participated in laboratory rotations, where I could explore different research areas. These experiences opened up my mind to a variety of disciplines and how they could be interconnected to solve a scientific research problem. Such opportunities shaped me into a quick, adaptive, open-minded, and inquisitive learner.

WSU CPPS Graduate Committee group photo (from left to right): Sayed Daoud, Kay Meier, Sergei Tolmachev, Sara Dumit, Jeannie Padowski, and Daniel Strom at WSU Spokane Campus (2018).