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Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report - Environmental Renaissance: PNNL researchers master the art of predictive sciences that use environmental stories of the past to paint a balanced future

An ounce of prevention

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 body's DNA repair function. PNNL's extensive radiation facilities can deliver multiple kinds of radiation exposures to cells (beta, alpha, x-ray, gamma-ray, 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 health—there 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. PNNL's 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 cell's 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.

(Photo caption: The ionizing radiation capabilities provided by the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program-accredited laboratory at PNNL comprise the broadest range of accredited capabilities available in the country outside of the National Institute of Standards and Technology. (US Army Dosimetry Center, Redstone Arsenal, AL; RESL is DOE's Radiological & Environmental Sciences Laboratory, Idaho Falls, ID; Global Calibration Laboratory, Cleveland, OH; CDRH is the Center for Devices & Radiological Health, USDA, Rockville, MD) )

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