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Radiation: The other side of the coin

Dr. Krishnaja A.P. July 11, 2012.

Radiation: The other side of the coin

The word radiation often conjures up images of the worst kind in the public mind: The atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki or the nuclear disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Early 20th century observations on the various biological effects of radiation exposure, in the aftermath of World War II, heightened public concern and scientific curiosity about this double-edged, invisible enigma. Often a controversial topic of heated debate, the layman at times is unaware of the tremendous benefits of radiation or its finer nuances. Like any human practice and its associated risks, the benefits of radiation far outweigh the harmful effects with judicious handling. It is also important to replace the fear of radiation in the public mind with an appreciation of what radiation biology has taught us about biology itself, apart from giving us insights into the biological effects of radiation. We had always lived with radiation and continue to live in a naturally radioactive world: Starting with exposure to cosmic radiation from space (though most of it is blocked by earths atmosphere), to the radioactive carbon and potassium contained by our muscles, or the radioactive polonium and radium present in our bones to the presence in our lungs of radioactive noble gases and tritium. Man-made activities such as weapons testing and nuclear power generation, over the last century, have further increased background radiation. The use of radiation and nuclear techniques in various fields, like human health, agriculture, food storage, industry, energy, hydrology, archaeology (carbon dating), space exploration, geology (mining), academics, science, technology and

law enforcement to mention a few, has brought immense benefits to mankind. The journey began with the discovery of X-rays. All of us at some point have definitely benefited from this most basic of diagnostic tools, at least as a chest or dental X-ray. Radiation is also a prime tool in the treatment of certain kinds of cancer, used either by itself, or as a complement to surgery or drugs. Radionuclides and radiation applications are now well established in medicine and most patients derive benefit from some form of nuclear medicine. Radiation sources are employed in diagnosis, therapy and research.

Small amounts of radioisotope tracers are used for diagnostic and research purposes. Radionuclides are the primary source of radiation, especially in developing countries. Instruments like computerized axial tomography (CAT) or computed tomography (CT) scanners in which X-ray machines connected to computers in machines provide doctors with colour images that show the shapes and details of internal organs. This helps physicians locate and identify tumors, size anomalies, or other physiological or functional defects in organs. The IAEA in collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO) has disseminated comparatively simple techniques of brachytherapy for cancer of the cervix. Thus the impact of radiation in medicine in terms of diagnosis and treatment are enormous. In the medical field, most applications are based on its third eye the ability of radiation to see beyond (what is visible) and the ability of intense radiation to kill cells. There are other undignified uses too such as prying into travelers suitcases and handbags at airports, checking for cracks in buildings, pipelines and other structures and of course, more dignified uses such as monitoring for irregularities in the thickness of paper products, plastic films, metal sheets, checking for welding errors, measuring liquid levels in large storage tanks etc. Coming to the agricultural sector, radiation has been successfully used in developing a number of newer strains of food crops and plants with a better yield, which are more resistant to pests and climatic conditions such as heavy rain or frost than the original species. Nuclear applications are routine in many areas such as plant breeding, pest control, soil fertility, production, storage of food (for instance, preventing sprouting in potatoes), animal health and studies of pesticide residues. The sterile insect technique has been successfully employed on a large scale to control such pests as the Mediterranean fruit fly and the tsetse fly. Industrial applications involve automatic process control, non-destructive testing (NDT) of materials and products, and processing and sterilization by means of irradiation. NDT techniques, wherein the material or product being analyzed remains intact, are becoming more popular in process and quality control measures. Worldwide, an estimated 4,00,000

persons are directly concerned with NDT activities. High doses of ionizing radiation are used to sterilize pre-packed, ready-to-use medical supplies for infection-free health care services. Studies on radioactive tracers have provided valuable new information on essential trace elements in nutrition and on health hazards associated with occupational and environmental exposure to toxic substances. The same techniques are used to monitor levels of toxic substances in food, air and water, providing a basis for regulation and control. Radiation has its use in hydrology as well. Water resource investigations and the allied fields of sedimentation and geothermal exploration make use of isotope techniques to assess the potential of underground water sources and to identify leakages from dams and reservoirs. The increasing cost of oil has provided an impetus to research geothermal energy. Isotope techniques again come in handy in such research, which involves evaluating temperatures of fluids at great depths. Many of these beneficial uses in medicine, agriculture, food irradiation and industry are an offshoot of the applications of discoveries in radiation sciences. Radiation has been an effective tool to probe fundamental biological processes. (J.S. Bedford and W.C.Dewey 2002. Radiation Research 158. 251-291. Historical and current highlights in radiation biology: Has anything important been learned by irradiating cells?) It is an irony that the harmful and beneficial effects of radiation were first observed in humans and not mice. The nave experience and hard knocks suffered by early radiologists and radiation scientists paved the way for the stringent protocols of today. To some extant, the standards and guidelines for radiation protection derived from the principles of Radiation genetics owed much to the early geneticists like Muller, Stadler, Goodspread and Olson. Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock, with her studies on the possible chromosomal basis for X-ray mutagenesis in maize, was another notable geneticist of this early era and a principal founder of the new science of cytogenetics. Many facts of great fundamental importance in genetics have been learnt by irradiating cells. Discoveries such as, transposable elements, evidence linking genetic material to nucleic acids, cell cycle check points, oxidative stress, DNA repair, genetic diseases with defective DNA repair,

mutagenesis, the link between mutagenesis and carcinogenesis, genomic instability are a few areas in which weve gained better insight by irradiating cells. Thrust areas of study in this realm then included acute tissue and tumor responses for applications in medicine, whole body radiation effects in plant and animal systems, radiation genetics, radiation cytogenetics, mutagenesis, carcinogenesis, mutation breeding, food irradiation, cellular radiation responses, cell cycle and checkpoint responses, apoptosis, molecular targets, variations in radiosensitvity and genetic control of radiosensitvity. The field of radiation biology is a fine example of interdisciplinary research involving physicists, chemists, biologists and medical fraternity. There are numerous examples of prestigious awards, including the Nobel (Muller and McClintock) being conferred on radiation researchers, illustrating the fact that the scientific community widely recognizes that many things of importance have been learnt by people who have spent a considerable portion of their careers irradiating cells.

In Marie Curies own words, We must not forget that when radium was discovered, no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals. The work was one of pure science. And this is proof that science must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it. It must be done for it self, for the beauty of science and then there is always the chance that a scientific discovery may become, like radium, a benefit for humanity.

The benefits of the applications of radiation dont immediately strike one, and what remains etched in our mind are its fallouts (the nuclear disasters et al). But these days, when I think of radiation, the picture that comes to my mind is that of the smiling faces of an old couple (the husband is 84 and the wife, 75) our friends and neighbours whom we fondly call uncle and aunty, and who very recently dealt with a cancer diagnosis and treatment sitting and chatting across a dining table. Yes, aunty is a recent cancer survivor and radiotherapy played a major role in her recovery. Then for some strange reason, I feel a surge of pride in having been associated with the principal nuclear establishment in the country, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, and feel privileged to have spent 25 years of my professional life there.