Nuclear incident in Vinča that changed the course of modern medicine

The accident that was later dubbed the Serbian Chernobyl happened 65 years ago to date in Vinča near Belgrade, at the Boris Kidrič Institute of Nuclear Sciences. Then six of our researchers were exposed to a large dose of radiation and had to seek medical help from the Curie Institute in Paris.

On October 15, 1958, six students and researchers were tasked with conducting experiments on Yugoslavia’s first low-power nuclear reactor, which was called the zero reactor.

Students Života Vranić and Radojko Maksić and technicians Rosanda Dangubić, Živorad Bogojević, Stjepo Hajduković and Draško Grujić, all in their twenties, were engaged in the experiment.

Around noon things started to go very wrong when uncontrolled radiation in the reactor hall started to leak with the zero reactor working at a power a billion times higher than the envisaged one.  As a result, six researchers were exposed to an extreme amount of radiation.

Less than 24 hours later, six irradiated scientists were airlifted to the Curie Institute in Paris for urgent medical treatment.

There, they received experimental bone marrow transplant therapy performed by Dr. Georges Mathé and thus became the first people in the world on whom this procedure was successfully performed. The first person to receive bone marrow transplant therapy was Radojko Maksić, followed by other patients.

Everyone survived except for Života Vranić, who managed to turn off the reactor in Vinča, but in the process, was exposed to an excessive amount of radiation, which his body was unable to cope with.

An oncologist who once hosted Dr. Georges Mathé in Serbia, Professor Vladimir Kovčin, PhD, says that the transplants were successful by sheer luck because the doctors did not yet have all the required knowledge to perform them.

“For transplantation, you have to have a certain donor and at that time, we had no idea that the donor must be genetically related to the recipient. The bone marrow transplants were done only based on blood groups and gender, while the rest was only found out later,” says Professor Kovčin.

Before the bone marrow was transplanted to Radojko Maksić, Dr. Mathé did the procedure only on rats.

“Dr. Georges Mathé did those experiments with the intention of finding a way to treat people who were irradiated after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings or to treat people in the event of a nuclear war. That was one of his goals,” Professor Kovčin adds.

“Those who are lethally irradiated die because they do not produce white or red blood cells or the platelets that serve to stop bleeding anymore and die either from infection or internal bleeding,” explains Professor Kovčin.

This revolutionary bone marrow transplant therapy by Dr. Mathé later became one of the main methods of treating various types of leukaemia.

Professor Kovčin goes on to say that Dr. Mathé helped Yugoslavia a lot during the economic sanctions in the 1990s.

“During the sanctions (against Yugoslavia), when we didn’t have sufficient medication or anything else for that matter, Dr. Mathé brought medicines and cytostatics in trucks when it was not possible to import these medicines into Yugoslavia. Thanks to his international connections, he managed to supply us with medicines for the most seriously ill patients, those suffering from cancer,” concludes Professor Kovčin.

Dr. Georges Mathé died in 2010, on October 15, the day of the accident in Vinča. Today, the Oncology Department at the Bežanijska Kosa Clinic and Hospital bears his name.

(Danas, 17.10.2023)

This post is also available in: Italiano

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