Creating a better radiation diagnostic test for astronauts

Researchers at the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre (SCK-CEN) are attempting to create a better diagnostic test for radiation exposure after accidental exposures that potentially could save thousands of lives but also astronauts during long term space missions to Mars.

Roel Quintens, Ellina Macaeva and Sarah Baatout, radiation biologists at the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre, SCK-CEN, Mol, Belgium, recently published a peer-reviewed study in the International Journal of Radiation Biology.

Their study compiled a list of genes and specific exons that are specifically affected by external ionizing radiation. The researchers assessed their performance as possible biomarkers to be used to calculate the amount of radiation absorbed by the human body in function of the dose, but also, as importantly, in function of the time after radiation.

"This can be very important, for example, during a space mission to Mars where astronauts can be exposed to high level of radiation during a solar flare or solar particle events or in the case of a nuclear event on Earth where a lot of people could be radiated or in the case of any accidental exposure" Drs. Quintens and Baatout said. "That is why it's crucial to be able to quickly and accurately assess the absorbed radiation so we can give astronauts or patients the proper medical treatment as fast as possible."

Dr. Quintens aims to develop a radiation test that would be faster, more reliable and more sensitive than other current tests. This could thereafter be implemented on board the space shuttle for long term space missions to allow the monitoring of radiation effects in specific high levels of radiation exposures in space (like a solar flare or high solar particle events).

If you would have a massive amount of people and only a day or two to screen everyone, it would be not possible to do this with the current available test. In this particular case, it is important to act quickly to perform the immediate screening and the right diagnostics that people have a better chance of survival in case of high radiation exposure."

Dr. Quintens, Head of Biomarker Research Lab at SCK-CEN

SCK-CEN performs research to identify biomarkers for radiation response for the past 10 years.”

Dr Baatout, Head of Radiobiology unit at SCK-CEN

Although many studies have tried to correlate gene expression after radiation exposure, this SCK-CEN study was able to decipher the dynamic nature of the radiation response in function of the time after exposure. “This feature will be of critical of importance for adequate gene expression-based dose prediction in a real emergency situation. Of importance as well, in this study we also compared the different available methodologies for RNA extraction available on the market” Dr Macaeva mentioned.

Dr. Baatout said:

This is the first time a team has combined robust candidate biomarkers of radiation exposure in an attempt to run a diagnostic assay to determine extremely accurately radiation exposure in function of the time and the dose.”

“There is presently not yet validated signature for biodosimetry (the measurement of biological response for radiation dose),” Dr. Quintens said. “There is no validated gene signature to assess the radiation dose. Our research can begin to identify these biomarkers and confirm genes that are radiation and time responsive.” “Our method would be one most suitable for emergency situation which does not require on-spot availability of any specific reagents or equipment”, Dr. Macaeva added.

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