Terahertz (THz) radiation, a slice of the electromagnetic spectrum that occupies the middle ground between microwaves and infrared light, is rapidly finding important uses in medical diagnostics, security, and scientific research. As scientists and engineers find evermore practical uses for this form of radiation, questions persist about its potential human health risks.
New research performed on lab-grown human skin suggests that short but powerful bursts of THz radiation may both cause DNA damage and increase the production of proteins that help the body fight cancer. The findings, which are the result of a collaboration between physicists at the University of Alberta and molecular biologists at the University of Lethbridge in Canada, are published today in the Optical Society’s (OSA) open-access journal Biomedical Optics Express.
“While these investigations of the biological effects of intense THz pulses are only just beginning,” said Lyubov Titova, with the University of Alberta and a member of the research team, “the fact that intense THz pulses can induce DNA damage but also DNA repair mechanisms in human skin tissue suggests that intense THz pulses need to be evaluated for possible therapeutic applications.”
THz photons, like their longer wavelength cousins in the microwave range, are not energetic enough to break the chemical bonds that bind DNA together in the nucleus of cells. These waves, however, have just the right frequency to energize water molecules, causing them to vibrate and produce heat, which is why microwave ovens are so efficient at cooking food. For this reason, it was believed that heat-related injuries were the principal risks posed by THz radiation exposure.
Recent theoretical studies, however, suggest that intense THz pulses of picosecond (one trillionth of a second) duration may directly affect DNA by amplifying natural vibrations (the so-called “breathing” mode) of the hydrogen bonds that bind together the two strands of DNA. As a result, “bubbles” or openings in DNA strands can form. According to the researchers, this raised the question: “Can intense THz pulses destabilize DNA structure enough to cause DNA strand breaks?”
As shown in earlier animal cell culture studies, THz exposure may indeed affect biological function under specific conditions such as high power and extended exposure. There is, however, a vast gulf between animal research and conclusions that can be drawn about human health.
In a first of its kind study, the Canadian researchers exposed laboratory-grown human skin tissue to intense pulses of THz electromagnetic radiation and have detected the telltale signs of DNA damage through a chemical marker known as phosphorylated H2AX. At the same time, they observed THz-pulse induced increases in the levels of multiple tumor suppressor and cell-cycle regulatory proteins that facilitate DNA repair. This may suggest that DNA damage in human skin arising from intense picosecond THz pulse exposure could be quickly and efficiently repaired, therefore minimizing the risk of carcinogenesis.