Radiation and Risk:

Is radiation exposure really unsafe at any dose?


Program in Translational Radiation Biology Research

This is a time of both critical need and extraordinary opportunity in the study of low-dose radiation and its effects on human health. The 2011 tsunami and subsequent meltdown of nuclear reactors in the Fukushima Daiichi power plant exposed thousands of Japanese citizens to low levels of radiation. Diagnostic imaging and radiation therapies expose tens of thousands more each year around the globe. Yet to date the risks associated with these exposures are unquantified and largely unknown.

The scientific community today knows remarkably little about the long-term health effects of low-dose radiation exposure and the biological mechanisms that govern how the cells in our bodies respond to such exposures. This leaves lawmakers, business leaders, and ordinary citizens without the solid evidence base they need to make informed decisions on public policy, risk, and personal safety.

Progress and Possibilities

Recent scientific progress has begun to shed light in some of these areas and open exciting new possibilities for exploration and collaboration. One example is the considerable expertise in signal transduction and molecular stress responses developed by the Research Institute for Radiation Biology Medicine (RIRBM) at Hiroshima University in Japan, under the leadership of Toshiya Inaba, MD. Another example is the discovery of a novel metabolic response to low doses of radiation, which , for the first time, allows for the accurate measurement of the biological consequences caused by very low doses of radiation exposure This discovery by Zhi-Min Yuan, MD, PhD of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers new possibilities for radiation risk assessment. The research at Harvard has provided scientific evidence of distinct protective effects resulting from low doses of radiation that calls into question the prevailing model which assumes that health risk is present at all exposure levels and increases or decreases in direct proportion to dosage.

Such progress has generated excitement among scientists and sparked an interest in establishing a collaborative relationship between HSPH and RIRBM to advance the science of low-dose radiation exposure and the molecular mechanisms underlying its effects on human health.

Program in Translational Radiation Biology Research

Harvard School of Public Health seeks funding to support a new Program in Translational Radiation Biology Research to be established under the auspices of the John B. Little Center for Radiation Sciences and Environmental Health at HSPH and operated in collaboration with RIRBM. The Program’s fundamental research goal will be to fill the current knowledge gap by undertaking a systematic investigation of metabolic responses to low doses of radiation at both cellular and whole-animal levels.

Research Priorities

  • Phase I – Focus on metabolic responses to low-dose irradiation 
    • Comprehensively characterize metabolic responses to low doses of radiation exposure;
    • Examine the mechanisms responsible for low-dose IR-induced protective effects;
    • Investigate the effect of low doses of IR on adult hematopoietic stem cell and progenitor cell homeostasis.
  • Phase II  – Focus on developing biomarkers for radiation exposure assessment

Translational priorities

  • Build tools for evidence-based risk assessment and decision making
  • Develop diagnostic and preventive solutions for radiation-related health hazards 

Leadership and Governance

The Harvard Chan School program will be led by Zhi-Min Yuan, MD, PhD, Professor of Radiobiology and Director of the John B. Little Center for Radiation Sciences and Environmental Health, Department of Genetics and Complex Diseases, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health:

An internationally recognized radiobiologist and Director of the JBL Center at the Harvard Chan School, Dr. Yuan received his PhD from the University of Maryland and post-doctoral training at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute before joining the faculty of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. His research interests are in the area of radiobiology, stress, and cancer with a focus on the tumor suppressor p53. His research programs are supported by NIH, ACS and DOE, among other funding agencies. He has published more than 70 peer-reviewed articles and is a member of the editorial board for three journals, as well as a chartered member of NIH Cancer Etiology Study Section and other grant reviewing bodies. Under Dr. Yuan’s leadership the JBL Center has taken a leadership position in studying the effects of radiation on organisms and informing researchers on the basic biological mechanisms of radiobiological stress resistance, intra- and intercellular communication, and adaptation to future stressors.

Additional Information

To obtain additional information about this project, please contact:

David Hastings, MBA, Deputy Director
Email: dhasting@hsph.harvard.edu
Phone: +1-617-432-6027