NASA grant to study cancer risks from space radiation

By Alex Lyda

Dr. Sandeep Burma, Associate Professor of Radiation Oncology at UT Southwestern Medical Center, has received a $1.4 million grant from NASA to conduct research that has the potential to help brain cancer patients who will never set foot in space.

Dr. Sandeep Burma
Dr. Sandeep Burma

While the grant is designed to estimate brain cancer risks to astronauts from space radiation, recent studies show that even low doses of radiation on Earth – such as from CT scans – can significantly increase the risk of developing glioblastoma, an aggressive and lethal type of brain tumor.

The UT Southwestern team is studying how brain cells respond to a particularly harmful component of space radiation called charged particle radiation, essentially atomic nuclei traveling at very high speeds. Exposure to particle radiation causes extensive damage to any cell’s DNA – damage that is difficult to repair and can lead to cancer.

Interestingly, particle radiation can also be generated here on Earth using particle accelerators, Dr. Burma said. Some types of particle radiation can be used to kill cancer cells, including glioblastoma cells, in clinical settings such as proton centers. UTSW officials are currently exploring the possibility of managing and staffing a 100,000-square-foot proton beam center.

For this project, however, Dr. Burma is using the high-tech facilities of the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, where heavy ions generated at a large particle accelerator there will be used to simulate and measure the glioblastoma-inducing effects of outer-space radiation on mice.

“High-energy ions pose a significant cancer risk to astronauts on prolonged space missions,” Dr. Burma said. “However, these ions are also relevant here on Earth because of the increasing use of charged particles, such as protons and carbon ions, for targeted tumor therapy.”