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Terahertz Radiation Causes, Fixes DNA Damage

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Terahertz radiation, which is beginning to find uses in medical imaging and security screening, can both cause DNA damage and at the same time increase the production of proteins that repair that damage, according to an article published Thursday in the open-access Biomedical Optics Express.

Terahertz waves reside at the far end of the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum, next to microwaves. They don’t penetrate deeply into body tissues with high water content, but some imaging uses are being explored, particularly in detection and diagnosis of skin cancer, breast cancer, cervical cancer, and colon cancer. They’ve also been used in security screening because they can penetrate fabrics and plastics, revealing concealed weapons.

The new research suggests possible health risks, but also possible beneficial uses. Lyubov Titova, PhD, a research associate in physics at the University of Alberta, said:

The fact that intense THz pulses can induce damage but also DNA repair mechanisms in human skin tissue suggests intense THz pulses need to be evaluated for possible therapeutic applications.

Dr. Titova is lead author of the study. She was quoted in a news release from The Optical Society, which publishes Biomedical Optics Express.

Terahertz photons are not energetic enough to break the chemical bonds of DNA in cell nuclei. But recent studies suggested that intense THz pulses may destabilize DNA structure by amplifying natural vibrations of DNA’s hydrogen bonds. Dr. Titova and her fellow researchers tested that hypothesis by zapping laboratory-grown human skin tissue with THz pulses far more intense than would typically be used any any real-world applications.

They did indeed detect DNA damage that could lead to cancer. But they also found significantly increased levels of several proteins that facilitate DNA repair, including one known as the “guardian of the genome” for its properties as a tumor suppressor and cell-cycle regulator. The article says the radiation “profoundly activates DNA damage response in artificial human skin tissues.”

The process in which DNA damage leads to cancer “is very slow,” Dr. Titova said, “and cells have evolved many effective mechanisms to recognize damage, pause the cell cycle to allow time for damage to be repaired, and, in case repair is unsuccessful, to prevent damage accumulation by inducing apoptosis, or programmed cell death of the affected cell.”

The researchers now plan to explore whether THz radiation pulses can actually treat cancer.

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