NASA awards Mars mission-related studies to UTSW scientists

UT Southwestern researchers have been awarded $3.6 million in NASA funds to study how space radiation would affect the cancer risk of astronauts taking part in deep space missions to Mars.

UTSW cancer biologist Sandeep Burma, Ph.D., will examine the increased risk of a highly malignant type of brain cancer called glioblastoma following exposure to particle radiation. UTSW cell biologist Jerry Shay, Ph.D., will study whether a drug known as CDDO administered before exposure to particle radiation reduces the risk of lung cancer and colon cancer.

“We’ve known for a long time that exposure to radiation causes cancer, but the radiation we have experience with here on Earth is different from that in space,” Dr. Burma notes. “It’s a long haul to Mars—three years there and back—and astronauts would be exposed to a lot of space radiation, so it’s important that we understand how this exposure would affect them.”

Dr. Shay’s work will look at a potential way to prevent some of the effects of exposure to those galactic cosmic rays.

“Studies have consistently shown that space radiation causes more damage than terrestrial radiation, so we need to be working on biological countermeasures, and the CDDO drug looks promising in this regard,” Dr. Shay says.

In addition to the mitigation of risk for astronauts, Dr. Shay’s work could have important implications for responders to nuclear incidents and for reducing the side effects of radiation therapy for cancer patients.