When you think about it, Americans go to great
lengths to be healthy these days. This generation is far
more knowledgeable about the benefits of a healthy
lifestyle than generations past. In addition to paying
attention to diet and exercise, many regularly take
precautions to avoid illness and disease. Today, taking
vitamin supplements, eating foods rich in antioxidants and
applying sunscreen are almost as commonplace
as brushing teeth in the morning. After all, an
ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
But what if we could do more to prevent
environmentally induced diseases, such as
those resulting from exposure to ionizing
radiation? Keep in mind that everyday
sources of radiation exposure such as passing
through airport security, watching TV or
standing in front of a microwave have not
been linked to cancer. Only high-frequency
radiation (ionizing radiation and ultraviolet
radiation) has been proven to cause genetic
damage, which can lead to cancer.
Certain professionals, such as emergency
personnel, astronauts, medical professionals
and radiation workers, can have a higher risk of
exposure to ionizing radiation. The exposure itself may not be
preventable, but medication to prevent the potential genetic
damage that can lead to cancer is an exciting possibility.
Through radioprotectant and molecular biology
research projects, scientists at Pacific Northwest
National Laboratory have developed novel approaches
for identifying certain cellular molecules that can
reduce the deleterious effect of radiation exposure by
increasing the bodyís DNA repair function. PNNLís
extensive radiation facilities can deliver multiple kinds of
radiation exposures to cells (beta, alpha, x-ray, gammaray,
and neutron fields). Such facilities, combined with
proteomic, genomic, metabonomic, DNA repair assay,
and systems biology capabilities, are allowing scientists
to study the efficacy of radioprotectants at the cellular
level over a wide range of dose levels and radiation types.
The human body is a remarkable machine that
regularly works hard to maintain its healthóthere are
approximately 10,000 to 1,000,000 genetic lesions per
cell that must be repaired daily! Such repair is essential
in all life forms, and failure to make these repairs can
eventually result in a major disease, including cancer.
PNNLís newest efforts should lead to not only the ability to enhance this daily repair of normal genetic
lesions but also the ability to repair even the more
difficult lesions caused by high radiation dose such as
those sustained by cancer therapy patients, astronauts
and first responders to emergencies.
Some day in the not too distant future, individuals
might take a daily supplement that triggers the cellís DNA repair function to enter a hyperproductive state,
thereby reducing the mutagenic or carcinogenic impact
of exposure from radiation or chemical contaminants.
For example, emergency personnel responding to
terrorist or natural catastrophic events could protect
themselves by boosting their DNA repair function
before entering environments with exposure potential.
Ionizing radiation is used in a host of medical
procedures and is an effective treatment for certain kinds
of cancer. Ironically, however, these high doses of radiation
may adversely cause DNA mutations in surrounding
healthy tissue that can lead to the development of another
cancer. Pretreatment with a radioprotectant may someday
eliminate this secondary damage.
Most exciting of all to PNNL researchers are the
unimaginable future discoveries that may result from
interdisciplinary studies that take advantage of premier
capabilities in ionizing radiation with new proteomic,
genomic and metabonomic tools in systems biology.
Through the benefits of further research, the general
public may eventually be able to add a DNA-repair
boosting supplement to its beach bag of sunscreens,
hats and antioxidant-rich snacks.
The Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.