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Mutat Res. 1999 Aug 11;429(1):45-83.

Ionizing radiation and genetic risks. X. The potential "disease phenotypes" of radiation-induced genetic damage in humans: perspectives from human molecular biology and radiation genetics.

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  • 1MGC, Department of Radiation Genetics and Chemical Mutagenesis, Leiden University Medical Centre, Sylvius Laboratories, Wassenaarseweg 72, 2333 AL, Leiden, Netherlands.


Estimates of genetic risks of radiation exposure of humans are traditionally expressed as expected increases in the frequencies of genetic diseases (single-gene, chromosomal and multifactorial) over and above those of naturally-occurring ones in the population. An important assumption in expressing risks in this manner is that gonadal radiation exposures can cause an increase in the frequency of mutations and that this would result in an increase in the frequency of genetic diseases under study. However, despite compelling evidence for radiation-induced mutations in experimental systems, no increases in the frequencies of genetic diseases of concern or other adverse effects (i.e., those which are not formally classified as genetic diseases), have been found in human studies involving parents who have sustained radiation exposures. The known differences between spontaneous mutations that underlie naturally-occurring single-gene diseases and radiation-induced mutations studied in experimental systems now permit us to address and resolve these issues to some extent. The fact that spontaneous mutations (among which are point mutations and DNA deletions generally restricted to the gene) originate through a number of different mechanisms and that the latter are intimately related to the DNA organization of the genes, are now well-documented. Further, spontaneous mutations include those that cause diseases through loss of function as well as gain of function of genes. In contrast, most radiation-induced mutations studied in experimental systems (although identified through the phenotypes of the marker genes) are predominantly multigene deletions which cause loss of function; the recoverability of an induced deletion in a livebirth seems dependent on whether the gene and the genomic region in which it is located can tolerate heterozygosity for the deletion and yet be compatible with viability. In retrospect, the successful mutation test systems (such as the mouse specific locus test) used in radiation studies have involved genes which are non-essential for survival and are also located in genomic regions, likewise non-essential for survival. In contrast, most of the human genes at which induced mutations have been looked for, do not seem to have these attributes. The inference therefore is that the failure to find induced germline mutations in humans is not due to the resistance of human genes to induced mutations but due to the structural and functional constraints associated with their recoverability in livebirths. Since the risk of inducible genetic diseases in humans is estimated using rates of "recovered" mutations in mice, there is a need to introduce appropriate correction factors to bridge the gap between these rates and the rates at which mutations causing diseases are potentially recoverable in humans. Since the whole genome is the "target" for radiation-induced genetic damage, the failure to find increases in the frequencies of specific single-gene diseases of societal concern does not imply that there are no genetic risks of radiation exposures: the problem lies in delineating the phenotypes of recoverable genetic damage that are recognizable in livebirths. Data from studies of naturally-occurring microdeletion syndromes in humans and those from mouse radiation studies are instructive in this regard. They (i) support the view that growth retardation, mental retardation and multisystem developmental abnormalities are likely to be among the quantitatively more important adverse effects of radiation-induced genetic damage than mutations in a few selected genes and (ii) underscore the need to expand the focus in risk estimation from known genetic diseases (as has been the case thus far) to include these induced adverse developmental effects although most of these are not formally classified as "genetic diseases". (ABSTRACT TRUNCATED)

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