Ph.D. Student Strives to Combat The Hidden Dangers of Chernobyl

Ph.D. Student Strives to Combat
The Hidden Dangers of Chernobyl

Chernobyl. Just the mention of that word conjures up memories. Memories of pre-Glastnost Soviet Union. Memories of a society that kept its information within, that closed itself to the outside world. The reactor explosion at the Chernobyl Power Plant in April 1986 was, until the beginning of this decade, a disaster about whose repercussions the Western world knew very little.
Only now are the effects of the massive exposure to radiation caused by the Chernobyl radiation leakage beginning to come to light.

Since the beginning of the 1990’s, Israel has become the home of nearly 130,000 immigrants from the Chernobyl area. Hava Weinberg, a doctoral student conducting her research at the University’s Institute of Evolution, is now in her second year of research trying to reveal mutations among immigrants from the Chernobyl area who were exposed to radiation. The project is the first of its kind in Israel at the level of molecular genetics.

“Based on experiments with mice and other organisms, it is known that exposure to radiation causes damage to chromosomes and genes,” Weinberg explains. “These damages result in mutations, or permanent changes to the genetic code, which in extreme cases lead to cancer and other diseases.” Weinberg has been examining DNA from blood samples from liquidators (workers who cleaned the site after the explosion) in order to develop a method to identify mutations.
“The development of a method to identify mutations is crucial,” Weinberg continues, “because of the possible consequences these mutations may have for succeeding generations.” Nearly 30,000 of the immigrants from the Chernobyl area are children and even more are in the reproductive age group. Thus mutations caused by the Chernobyl accident could be transmitted from generation to generation, as parents pass on their genetic material to the offspring. The hazards of such a heritage are obvious: increased rates of genetic diseases.

Weinberg is working in cooperation with Dr. G. Rennert, head of Community Medicine and Epidemiology in Haifa’s Carmel Medical Center. She intends to develop a “fast and reliable method of revealing genetic damages in families and individuals who were exposed to Chernobyl radiation.” This work aims to reveal de-novo mutations. Weinberg stresses that the urgency to find a method to reveal the radiation-induced mutations cannot be underestimated. Corrective treatments can be developed only after such a method is developed. Her work carries importance over and above the attainment of a Ph.D.
As she points out, the sooner the treatments are developed, the fewer negative consequences Chernobyl will have on the Israeli gene pool at large.

A native Haifaite, Weinberg received her M.Sc. in Science and Technology Instruction from The Technion in the mid-1970’s. After taking time off to raise a family, she came to the University to pursue her interest in molecular biology and human genetics. She is working under the supervision of the Institute of Evolution’s Prof. Eviatar Nevo, Prof. Abraham Konol, and Dr. Tzion Fahima. Research into radiation-induced mutations caused by the Chernobyl accident is also being carried out in the United States, Great Britain, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Japan.

Back to Table of Contents