Researchers are launching a new cancer research initiative – literally.
NASA has awarded a team of investigators from both the Winship Cancer Institute of Emory University and the Medical College of Georgia $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, PhD, professor of radiation oncology at Emory University School of Medicine and Winship Cancer Institute, is director of the NSCOR at Emory.
Interplanetary space travel could expose astronauts to conditions where they are chronically subject to types of radiation not normally encountered on earth. One of these radiation types is high energy charged particles (HZE), which results in complex damage to DNA and a broader stress response by the affected cells and tissues.
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. 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.
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.
“The information generated by this project will be critical for estimating risks and establishing countermeasures for cancers associated with long term space travel. 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,” concludes Dr. Paul Doetsch, PhD, professor of radiation oncology and biochemistry, and associate director of Emory’s NSCOR.