Swartz and his team are looking to make their dosimeters more sensitive and smaller so they can easily deployed in the field. Last year he received some assistance when the National Institutes of Health awarded Dartmouth $3.3 million per year over five years for create its own radiation-response research facility. Swartz and his team are negotiating with a government agency (which he says he cannot name) in collaboration with General Electric to develop a new version of the tooth dosimeter that would be U.S. Food and Drug Administration–compliant and scalable for mass manufacture.
The goal is to make dosimeters available to people who have likely been exposed to ionizing radiation but who do not know the level of exposure. "Under a certain scenario such a device will tell you whom you can save, who should be kept at a hospital, and who gets sent home," says Eva Guinan, associate director of Dana–Farber Cancer Institute's Center for Clinical and Translational Research, "particularly when there aren't enough resources to help everyone."
Although the amounts of radioactive iodine, cesium and strontium found in any single location throughout northeastern Japan have been small, the cumulative amount of radioactive material produced by the plant prompted Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) on Tuesday to submit a provisional International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) level 7 rating for the accident (pdf). This raised the original rating from level 5 and puts the Fukushima Daiichi disaster technically in the same category as Chernobyl, although the quantity of discharged radioactive materials in Japan so far is about 10 percent of what was released by the Chernobyl reactor explosion, considered history's worst nuclear accident.
Guinan and her team have for the past year and a half helped Swartz gauge the accuracy of his technology. Guinan, a bone marrow transplant specialist, began by asking her radiation therapy patients to provide her with fingernail and toenail clippings. Swartz is still in the process of comparing his dosimeter readings with the actual radiation doses that Dana–Farber administered.
Guinan is now hoping to step up her patients' level of cooperation in Swartz's research by having them try the tooth dosimeter. The goal is to help Swartz work out any ergonomic and instructional issues as well as improve the technology's accuracy and efficacy. If this works out, the patients will have the radiation level measured in their teeth before they receive a bone marrow transplant and again after a certain number of treatments to see if they are in line with the radiation dosage technicians think they are giving the patients, she says.