Penn awarded Center of Acute Radiation Research for study of space radiation

The University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine has been awarded $10 million over a five-year period from the National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI). The grant establishes an NSBRI Center of Acute Radiation Research (CARR) studying the acute effects of space radiation.

Ann Kennedy, D.Sc., professor of radiation biology and the Richard Chamberlain professor of research oncology in Penn’s Department of Radiation Oncology, will direct the CARR.

"As we prepare to return to the moon for longer stays, a better understanding of and solutions to the immediate risks from radiation exposure will be needed," said Dr. Jeffrey P. Sutton, NSBRI director. "We’re pleased to have Dr. Kennedy and her team lead the effort to decrease these risks."

Crafts orbiting Earth, like the International Space Station, are better protected from space radiation by Earth’s magnetic field. However, astronauts traveling to and living on the moon will run the risk of exposure to dangerous bursts of solar radiation, known as solar particle events. The radiation dose received will vary depending on whether the crew is inside the spacecraft or outside doing a spacewalk or moonwalk.

These exposures can cause immediate effects, called acute radiation sickness. Reactions to this type of exposure include early symptoms, known as prodromal syndrome, characterized by nausea, vomiting and fatigue, followed by potential skin injury and changes to white blood cell counts and the immune system.

Kennedy’s team will assess the acute effects of radiation exposure from solar events, better define the risks, and develop and test methods to protect astronauts. The CARR will consist of five focused research projects that will require the use of proton facilities located at University of Pennsylvania, Loma Linda University Medical Center, and the NASA Space Radiation Laboratory at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

"Our work will improve the ability to predict risk for acute radiation effects from solar particle events by learning more about the effects of different dose rates. We also will establish methods to prevent and treat acute radiation syndrome symptoms," Kennedy said.

The Center’s multiple projects will involve the work of eight Penn faculty and will be led by CARR director Kennedy, CARR associate director Dr. Keith Cengel, assistant professor of radiation oncology, Dr. Gary Kao, associate professor of radiation oncology, and Dr. Drew Weissman, associate professor of infectious diseases.

NSBRI is a NASA-funded consortium of institutions studying the health risks related to long-duration spaceflight and developing countermeasures to mitigate the risks. The Institute’s science, technology and education projects take place at more than 60 institutions across the United States. University of Pennsylvania Health System is a member of the NSBRI consortium.

In addition to radiation risks, NSBRI projects address other space health concerns, including bone and muscle loss, cardiovascular changes, neurobehavioral and psychosocial factors, remote medical care and research capabilities, and habitability and performance issues such as sleep cycles and lunar dust exposure. Research findings will also impact the understanding and treatment of similar medical conditions experienced on Earth.