November 8, 2010

NASA funds space radiation research

Researchers from Emory’s Winship Cancer Institute and the Medical College of Georgia are launching a new cancer research initiative – literally.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has awarded a team of investigators from both institutions $7.6 million over five years to study how a component of space radiation may induce lung cancer. 

The award establishes a NASA Specialized Center of Research (NSCOR), consisting of a team of scientists with complementary skills who work closely together to solve a set of research questions. Ya Wang, professor of radiation oncology at Emory School of Medicine and Winship Cancer Institute, is director of the NSCOR at Emory.

Interplanetary space travel could chronically expose astronauts to conditions where there are types of radiation not normally encountered on Earth. One of these is high energy charged particles (HZE) radiation, which results in complex damage to DNA and a broader stress response by the affected cells and tissues. 

Lung cancer risk

There is no epidemiological data for human exposure to HZE particles, although some estimates have been made studying uranium miners and Japanese atomic bomb survivors, says Wang.

Animal experiments show that HZE particle exposure induces more tumors than other forms of radiation such as X-rays or gamma rays.

Because it is a leading form of cancer, lung cancer can be expected to be prominent among increased risks from radiation even though astronauts do not smoke.

However, the risk for astronauts remains unclear because the dose of HZE astronauts are expected to receive is very low, Wang says.

The Emory-MCG researchers will probe whether the broader stress response induced by HZE particles amplifies cancer risk.

Investigators will collaborate with physicists at Brookhaven National Laboratory to gather information on HZE’s effects. Individual projects include the study of how cells repair DNA damage induced by HZE particles, how HZE particles generate oxidative stress, and how they trigger regulatory changes in DNA known as methylation.

Insights for Earth and space

“The information generated by this project will be critical for estimating risks and establishing countermeasures for cancers associated with long-term space travel,” says Paul Doetsch, professor of radiation oncology and biochemistry at Winship and associate director of NSCOR. “In addition, new insights into cancer resulting from all types of radiation exposure, including those found on Earth, are likely to emerge from this project.”

The researchers plan to visualize the response to HZE particle radiation in real time using nanomedicine tools and approaches.

“The center will place Emory and the state of Georgia squarely on the map as a place of international importance within the handful of NSCORs in the world dedicated to the study of cancer and space radiation exposure,” says Walter Curran, executive director of Winship and chairman of Emory’s Department of Radiation Oncology.

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