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Space Travelers at Higher Cancer Risk

By Daniel H. Rasolt

Posted: Wednesday, April 16, 2008

(Defeat Diabetes® News) -- Astronauts and future deep space explorers may need to consider some serious health concerns when venturing out into this dark and cold medium. New research has shown that the unfiltered high-energy radiation present in parts of space (namely for this study, in our solar system due to the sun) leads to premature aging and a higher risk for cancer when exposure is for extended periods of time.

The high-energy radiation is more specifically referred to as high linear energy transfer (LET) radiation, and is in great abundance in space compared to here on Earth, because there is no atmosphere (including the ozone layer), to absorb much of the radiation. "High-LET radiation is found in solar flares and is made up of high-energy protons, charged iron particles, and some gamma radiation."

A persons risk for developing cancer due to radiation exposure is currently based "exclusively on the cumulative dose a person receives in his or her lifetime." For astronauts, there are times of high LET exposure, that hypothetically would put them at higher risk, but no techniques have been developed to date that assess how much higher their risk actually is.

This study, by exposing mice to high LET radiation, aimed to find a way to determine what the actual effect of this radiation is on the body. The research "team measured the level of free radicals present as well as the expression of stress response genes in the cells of mice exposed to high-LET radiation similar to that found in space. The researchers concluded that the cellular environment of the gastrointestinal tract was highly oxidative – or full of free radicals – for prolonged periods of time, a state which is conducive to cancer development." Free radicals can often lead to mutations and malignant cancer tumors. Specifically, this case would translate to an increased risk of colon cancer for astronauts.

Of course the longer one is exposed to the high LET radiation, the more chance there is for free radicals to develop. Astronauts currently can be in space for over two months, leading to ample exposure to high LET radiation. With future missions planned, both back to the moon, and eventually to Mars, under the new NASA "Vision" program, astronauts will be encountering even more exposure time to radiation.

It was also found that the mice exposed to high LET radiation aged faster, noting that "the mice's coats became prematurely grey." It's noted that further tests, notably brain scans, need to be done to determine to what degree this expedited aging takes place.

Future space cadets should not be too discouraged though. Research like this is leading to the development of "new radiation shielding technologies," that would ideally block the dangerous high LET radiation in much the same way the Earth's atmosphere does. Fortunately for now, the number of individuals exiting the Earth's gravitational pull is minimal, but for those that want to go off into the great beyond, it's best to know the risks.

Source: Defeat Diabetes Foundation: Mallet, Karen. 2008 American Association for Cancer Research Annual Meeting press release. April 2008.

Daniel H. Rasolt writes for Defeat Diabetes® News. Read more of his original content articles.

Copyright © 2008 Defeat Diabetes Foundation, Inc. All rights reserved.

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