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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2001 Dec 4;98(25):14410-5.

Radiation risk to low fluences of alpha particles may be greater than we thought.

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  • 1Center for Radiological Research, College of Physicians and Surgeons, and Environmental Health Sciences, School of Public Health, Columbia University, New York, NY 10032, USA.


Based principally on the cancer incidence found in survivors of the atomic bombs dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP) and the United States National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) have recommended that estimates of cancer risk for low dose exposure be extrapolated from higher doses by using a linear, no-threshold model. This recommendation is based on the dogma that the DNA of the nucleus is the main target for radiation-induced genotoxicity and, as fewer cells are directly damaged, the deleterious effects of radiation proportionally decline. In this paper, we used a precision microbeam to target an exact fraction (either 100% or < or =20%) of the cells in a confluent population and irradiated their nuclei with exactly one alpha particle each. We found that the frequencies of induced mutations and chromosomal changes in populations where some known fractions of nuclei were hit are consistent with non-hit cells contributing significantly to the response. In fact, irradiation of 10% of a confluent mammalian cell population with a single alpha particle per cell results in a mutant yield similar to that observed when all of the cells in the population are irradiated. This effect was significantly eliminated in cells pretreated with a 1 mM dose of octanol, which inhibits gap junction-mediated intercellular communication, or in cells carrying a dominant negative connexin 43 vector. The data imply that the relevant target for radiation mutagenesis is larger than an individual cell and suggest a need to reconsider the validity of the linear extrapolation in making risk estimates for low dose, high linear-energy-transfer (LET) radiation exposure.

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