Radiation exposure at levels encountered in deep space may increase the risk of leukaemia, scientists have warned.
The findings raise concerns about plans for human missions to Mars.
But they may help understanding of the ways in which radiation exposure may potentially increase the risk of leukaemia, say the scientists, led by Dr Christopher Porada, of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, North Carolina, USA.
The team used funding from NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, in order to test human stem cells under exposure to specific forms of radiation.
They measured the effects of simulated solar energetic particles and galactic cosmic ray radiation on human hematopoietic stem cells from healthy donors of typical astronaut age (30 to 55 years). The cells were exposed to 'Mars mission-relevant' doses of protons and iron ions.
These exposure levels 'dramatically affected the health and function of the hematopoietic stem cells,' the team reported in Leukemia recently.
'Radiation exposure at these levels was highly deleterious to cell function, reducing their ability to produce almost all types of blood cells, often by 60% to 80%.
'This could translate into a severely weakened immune system and anaemia during prolonged missions in deep space.'
They point out that the current study is significant because it shows that radiation affected cells at the stem cell level, causing gene linked to the hematopoietic process, dramatically reducing the ability of hematopoietic stem cells to give rise to mature blood cells.
Dr Porada said: 'We found that genetic damage to hematopoietic stem cells directly led to leukaemia. Secondly, radiation also altered the ability of hematopoietic stem cells to generate T and B cells, types of white blood cells involved in fighting foreign 'invaders' like infections or tumour cells.'
Source: Rodman, C. et al. In vitro and in vivo assessment of direct effects of simulated solar and galactic cosmic radiation on human hematopoietic stem/progenitor cells. Leukemia 24 November 2016; doi:10.1038/leu.2016.344
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