After the September 11 attacks, Congress became worried that terrorists targeting the U.S. might explode a radiological weapon—most likely a “dirty” bomb, a kind of weapon that relies on a conventional explosive to spread radioactive materials packed around it. In 2004 Congress funded several research centers to create drugs to protect survivors and first responders from radiation injury. But the biggest beneficiary of this research might be a much different and far larger group of people: cancer patients.

Some 10.5 million Americans are living with cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. These patients must conquer not one but two different diseases. “When we are talking about cancer survivors,” explains Andrei Gudkov, senior vice president for basic research at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., “we mean survivors both from the disease itself and from the treatment of the disease.” That is because the two common treatments—radiation therapy and chemotherapy—generally attack healthy tissue as well as tumors, causing long- and short-term complications. Radiotherapy sometimes even gives patients new tumors years later, Gudkov says. The complications also prevent many cancer patients from receiving doses large enough to treat the disease and survive. “So if we can reduce the chances of complications,” says radiation oncologist Mitchell Anscher of Virginia Commonwealth University, “that’s half the battle right there.”