Newswise — Feb. 24, 2005 " UT Southwestern Medical Center has won a highly competitive, $9.8 million NASA Specialized Center of Research (NSCOR) grant that will allow researchers to study the effects of radiation on astronauts and minimize possible health risks caused by future space travel.

"This builds on outstanding lung cancer and radiation biology research at UT Southwestern that will now focus on how to protect us from the dangerous effects of radiation exposure in space as well as here at home," said Dr. James Willson, director of the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center.

The five-year research grant establishes a NASA Specialized Center of Research for the Estimation of Solid Tumor Cancer Risks from Space Radiation. NSCORs are responsible for expanding knowledge in the biological and biomedical sciences and technology arenas to enable human space flight and long-term planetary missions.

Eleven proposals were submitted to NASA. UT Southwestern and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute at Harvard Medical School were each selected by peer review for the grant, joining existing centers at Colorado State University, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and Loma Linda University.

For the $9.8 million "Lung Cancer Pathogenesis and HZE Particle Exposure" study, data will be obtained from new human cell systems and animal models developed at UT Southwestern. HZE particles are high mass and energy ionized particles that make up a portion of the cosmic ray background of space. These highly ionizing particles have the potential for severe health implications for astronauts.

The information researchers obtain will be converted into quantitative risk assessment for the effects of radiation from space travel.

"There are multiple risks to astronauts from space travel, and a very important one is the potential effect of exposure to high-energy particles found in space," said Dr. John Minna, director of the new NASA center at UT Southwestern, as well as the W.A. "Tex" and Deborah Moncrief Jr. Center for Cancer Genetics and the Nancy B. and Jake L. Hamon Center for Therapeutic Oncology Research.

"NASA wants to develop quantitative risk estimates and ways to prevent adverse effects from this exposure, such as cancer," Dr. Minna said. "From this research we also expect to learn much that will help us in prevention and treatment of cancer here on Earth. We look forward to working closely with NASA in this endeavor."

UT Southwestern's winning application was spearheaded by Dr. Minna; Dr. Jerry Shay, professor of cell biology; Dr. David Chen, co-director of the NSCOR, professor of radiation oncology and head of the molecular radiation biology division; and Dr. Michael Story, associate professor of radiation oncology.

"The implications of radiation in space on the human body are not well understood, and this grant will enable us to examine the consequences and risks," Dr. Shay said. "This award solidifies an already strong program in lung cancer biology here and will help in our efforts to obtain recognition from the National Cancer Institute as a 'Comprehensive Cancer Center.' "

Dr. Chen, who received a $1.36 million NASA grant last fall to study "DNA Damage Responses Induced by HZE Particles in Human Cells" said the NSCOR will enable him and his colleagues in molecular radiation biology to further their DNA repair research on several fronts.

"Our new division is working with clinicians at UT Southwestern to develop new modalities for treating patients," Dr. Chen said. "Part of our work is to find better ways to eliminate cancer cells in patients. Another is to increase our knowledge and understanding of radiation's effects and how to protect the cells in the body from harmful radiation, whether caused by space travel, nuclear waste accident or terrorism."

The $9.8 million award is the second such NASA grant for UT Southwestern. A five-year, $5 million NASA Specialized Center of Research and Training award in 1993 led to the establishment of a center in physiology to examine the mechanisms that enable living organisms to adjust to changing demands imposed by the environment.

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