Radiobiology heats up
Summer program highlights a renewed interest in the field as U.S. eyes a
human mission to Mars
BY ZERAH LURIE
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
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.
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