Free Radical and Radiation Biology Program Celebrates 60 Years of Teaching, Research, and Service

Old Capitol

by J.W. Osborne, The University of Iowa

The Radiation Research Laboratory (RRL) was established in 1947 and began operation in the Spring of 1948.

Dr. H. Dabney Kerr, Head of Radiology, and the heads of the Biochemistry and Physiology departments at Iowa, were instrumental in urging the University of Iowa College of Medicine to establish such a unit. The decision was timely since several radionuclides potentially very useful in diagnosis and therapy were just becoming available. Also, there was a critical need nationally and internationally for additional data on the biological effects of radiation. Dr. T.C. Evans, a native Texan who in 1934 received the PhD degree in Zoology at the University of Iowa, was recruited as Research Professor of Radiology and Director of the Radiation Research Laboratory. He had been very productive during the years 1941-1948as a scientist at the Radiological Laboratory, Columbia University. While there, Evans interacted with Drs. E. Quimby, G. Failla, and H. Rossi, among others. He had become well-known early in his career for a number of discoveries including the effects of small daily doses of neutrons on mice.

In the early years (1948-1955), the educational role of RRL involved the teaching of radiobiology to radiology residents, lectures to sophomore medical students, and lecture and laboratory courses dealing with radiation protection principles and basic radioassays. Substantial research support came from the Iowa Division of the American Cancer Society and the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The projects supported were related to control of the growth of ascites tumor cells, in vitro and in vivo iodine uptake studies, and studies in various animal models of radiation injury and ways to modify the response to irradiation.

Besides its teaching effort, RRL served as the liaison between the University and the AEC relative to radiation protection procedures and approvals for faculty and students to use radionuclides. Additionally, RRL developed radionuclide procedures for use on campus in patient studies and in animal research. RRL served as the University of Iowa’s nuclear medicine installation from 1948-1964 since all procedures utilizing radionuclides in humans were performed here.

During its last years of nuclear medicine service, RRL was using state-of -the-art imaging devices, perfecting in vitro procedures, and utilizing 99mTc as longer-lived radionuclides were supplanted. The experience with imaging devices began with a 1" NaI (Tl) crystal and a heat-activated dot printout on white paper and ended with commercial and locally-developed equipment for color printouts from scintigraphy equipment utilizing a 5" NaI (Tl) crystal. In 1961, a graduate program in Radiation Biology was established. In 1963, a Radiation Safety Office was established as was a Division of Nuclear Medicine. With these two efforts no longer a RRL responsibility, more emphasis could be placed on the MS and PhD graduate programs approved by the Graduate College two years earlier.   

Initially, Titus Evans had two other faculty --- C. Janney, a physicist, and T. Winnick, a biochemist. The latter’s appointment in the Biochemistry Department made it possible for him to direct students in the Biochemistry degree programs. E. Riley, Jr. joined as a faculty member in 1953, retiring in 1985. J.W. Osborne, who obtained his PhD at the University of Illinois with Henry Quastler, became a faculty member in 1955 and is still in the FRRB Program as Professor Emeritus. Other former and current faculty include R. Rhody (1954-1957), H. Jackson (1960-1963), W. Lohmann (1965-1969), R. DeGowin (1968-1973), B. Mawhinney (1968-1970), K. Coop (1970-1974), L. Oberley (1974-2008), R. Stevens (1974-1986), D. Hussey (1984-2000), G. Claycamp (1985-1990), G. Buettner (1988-), M. Robbins (1993-2001), F. Domann(1993-), D.R. Spitz (2000-), P. Goswami (2000-), K. Dornfeld (2002-2007).

Professor Emeritus H.F. Cheng continues to participate in faculty activities. The current primary appointees in FRRBP --- Buettner, Domann, Goswami, and Spitz have been joined by 11 other faculty in the College of Medicine (K. Brown, J. Buatti, J. Engelhardt, S. Franklin, M. Graham, R. Hichwa, F. Ianzini, M. Mackey, M. Madsen, F. Miller, and T. Tewson) to constitute the current teaching and research group in the Free Radical and Radiation Biology Program. The administrative structure of RRL began as a unit responsible only to the Dean of the College of Medicine, but became a Division of Radiology in 1973 and in the early 1990's, a section of Radiation Oncology, one of the Divisions of the Department of Radiology.

Effective with the Fall semester of 2000, the name of the graduate program was changed to Free Raidcal and Radiation Biology Program to reflect changes in scientific emphasis in the program.On July 1, 2001, Radiation Oncology was established as a department that encompassed not only the clinical activities, but also FRRBP.

Titus Evans was the Head of RRL and Director of the Graduate Program in Radiation Biology from 1948-1975. J.W. Osborne served in these roles from 1975-1993. M. Robbins became Director of Research in 1993 while Osborne continued as Director of the Graduate Program.

In September, 1998, L. Oberley assumed the Directorship of the Graduate Program. The Graduate Program has graduated 90 students who received MS or PhD degrees or both. The graduates have gone on to make significant contributions to progress in clinical and basic research and patient treatment at universities, institutes, industry, and hospitals. A number of postdoctorals have also spent 1-3 years at RRL. On average, 12 students are enrolled in this interdisciplinary program, with the option of a major emphasis in either radiation biology or free radical biology. Currently, there are 25 graduate students and 4 postdoctorals.