Radiobiology heats up

Summer program highlights a renewed interest in the field as U.S. eyes a human mission to Mars


July 19, 2004

The U.S. goal of a human mission to Mars faces many hurdles, among them a shortage of space radiobiologists. It's a shortage NASA addressed in part with its first space radiation summer school, held last month at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Until recently, space radiobiology, a hybrid mix of biology and physics, was considered a dead-end field. But now, helped by new discoveries and new facilities, the research has gotten more attention.

Last year, BNL opened its NASA Space Radiation Laboratory, the only place in the United States that can create beams of radiation like those found in deep space. All that was missing were the scientists.

"The big goal is to create a new generation of space radiobiologists," said Marcelo Vasquez, a co-director of the summer school.

NASA scientists have been studying the effects of deep-space radiation on astronauts for years, but President George W. Bush's January announcement of a manned mission to Mars by 2030 has given the problem a new importance, Vasquez said.

Space is filled with radiation, either coming from the sun or the depths of space. Earth's atmosphere and magnetic field shield us from most of it. Most of what scientists know about radiation's side effects comes from experiments in low-earth orbit and from atomic bomb survivors.

"Unfortunately, there is no data for the biological effects of [deep-space] particles on humans," said Larry Townsend, chairman of a committee looking into the problem for the National Council on Radiation Protection.

Townsend's committee is looking at what research needs to be done to find such information. In the next few years, Vasquez expects more research opportunities will arise, but he says qualified scientists are needed.

Vasquez, who is also a medical scientist at BNL, is looking at how deep-space radiation affects the central nervous system. Other scientists have predicted that during a mission to Mars, every cell in the central nervous system will be traversed by at least one charged particle.

"When you hear we are going to Mars, it seems so farfetched that it's hard to grasp onto," says Onarae Rice, one of the students who attended the NASA summer school.

The intensive three-week course brought together students with both physics and biology backgrounds "to give them the practical expertise for them to design their own experiments," said Greg Nelson, the other co-director who also leads the NASA-Radiation Biology Program at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California.

Interest in the field was renewed about five years ago when evidence showed irradiated cells can carry unseen defects that show up in offspring several generations later.

Copyright (c) 2004, Newsday, Inc.

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