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Environ Health Perspect. 1998 Feb;106 Suppl 1:277-83.

The adaptive response in radiobiology: evolving insights and implications.

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  • 1Department of Radiology, University of California San Francisco, USA. wolff@rerf.or.sp


The first of the regularly reproducible experiments to show that very low doses of ionizing radiation, like very low doses of chemical agents, could induce mechanisms whereby cells become better fit to cope with subsequent exposures to high doses were carried out on the induction of chromosome aberrations in cultures of human lymphocytes. If cells that had been exposed to a very low dose (1 cGy) of X rays were subsequently exposed to a relatively high dose (1 Gy), approximately half as many chromosome breaks were induced. Subsequent experiments showed that this adaptive response to low doses requires a certain minimal dose before it becomes active; occurs only within a relatively small window of dose; is dose-rate dependent; and depends on the genetic constitution of the people or animals exposed, with some being unresponsive. It was further shown that the response to the low-dose preexposure was not instantaneous but took approximately 4 to 6 hr to become fully active, and could be prevented if during this period protein synthesis was inhibited, i.e., a necessary protein (enzyme) was being induced. In fact, subsequent experiments with two-dimensional gel electrophoresis showed new proteins in cells irradiated with 1 to 2 cGy. The adaptation induced by low doses of radiation was therefore attributed to the induction of a novel efficient chromosome break repair mechanism that if active at the time of challenge with high doses would lead to less residual damage. This hypothesis was strengthened by a series of experiments in which it was found that inhibitors of poly(ADP-ribose)polymerase, an enzyme implicated in DNA strand break rejoining, could prevent the adaptive response. Although the phenomenon is well established in cellular systems, it is still problematical as to whether or not it will have any utility in establishing risks of ionizing radiation to humans. Newer experiments have now been carried out on the mechanisms underlying the effect and whether or not the effect can manifest itself as a decrease in the number of induced cancers and radiation-induced mortality. Experiments with restriction enzymes now indicate that double-strand breaks in DNA can be triggering events in adaptation. In addition, preliminary experiments on the survival of whole-body irradiated mice have shown that multiple exposures to low adapting doses can have profound effects on survival, and other experiments have shown that adaptation can affect the induction of thymic lymphoma in irradiated mice. It therefore appears that the initial experiments behind the adaptive response have led to a vigorous worldwide effort to understand the basic mechanisms behind it. This effort is stimulated both by a desire to understand the basic cell biology behind the response and a desire to see if indeed this phenomenon affects the estimation of risks of low-level radiation exposure.

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