GUMC Researchers Receive $9 Million NASA Grant for Space Radiation Research

MARCH 27, 2015—NASA has selected a team of Georgetown University Medical Center researchers to receive one of three NASA Specialized Centers of Research (NSCOR) grants to study space radiation research.  The $9 million grant over five years is from NASA’s Human Research Program.

“This is an exciting opportunity to contribute to NASA's long-term mission for manned space flight by reducing the uncertainty for space radiation-associated gastrointestinal (GI) cancer risk. It will also identify targets for future cancer prevention strategies,” says the NSCOR director Albert Fornace Jr., MD, professor of biochemistry and molecular & cellular biology.

Fornance’s lab has a longstanding interest in radiation effects on the human body and a major focus has been on the effects of space radiation on the GI tract. NASA’s funding will help continue their efforts.

“With this support we will be able leverage our earlier studies to develop a comprehensive understanding of the effects of space radiation at the molecular level and realistic estimates of potential risks for GI cancer in astronauts, especially during long-term space flight,” explains Fornace, who holds the Molecular Cancer Research Chair at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The NSCOR involves cooperative efforts among investigators from four institutions. Here at Georgetown, Fornace and Kamal Datta, MD, will use mouse models of GI cancer in their research. At the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Jerry Shay, PhD, professor of cell biology and neuroscience, and his team will study advanced cellular models using human cells that line the colon in addition to mouse models. Paul Meltzer, MD, PhD, the chief of the genetics branch of the National Cancer Institute, will assess genomic changes triggered by space radiation. Finally, David Brenner, PhD, the director of the center for radiological research at Columbia University, will use the team’s data to develop mathematical modeling approaches to estimate GI cancer risks.   

Dangers of Radiation Exposure

Radiation exposure is a major challenge for long-duration space missions. For example, astronauts travelling on a Mars mission will encounter a hazardous radiation field.

Fornace says studies have linked radiation exposure to increased cancer risks, including colorectal and gastric cancers.

“Considering the high incidence of colorectal cancer and higher incidence of premalignant colon polyps in this country, an even modest increase by space radiation exposure could have a significant effect on astronauts’ health risk estimates during and after long-duration manned space flights,” he says.

In order for scientists to gain more certainty about cancer risk linked to radiation exposure, more laboratory-based studies are needed.

“Acquiring in vivo data in the National Space Radiation Laboratory at Brookhaven National Laboratory will allow us to model and predict space radiation-associated human risks,” Fornace says.

Additionally, clarification of cellular changes triggered by space radiation will lay the groundwork for future preventative strategies, Fornace adds.

By Sarah Reik
GUMC Communications