Epigenetics could play a role in determining whether or not future trends of diseases can in fact be linked to low-dose radiation delivered from computed tomography (CT) scans, says an article.
The term epigenetics refers to changes in the phenotype (appearance) or gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence.
These changes may remain through cell divisions for the remainder of the cell's life and may also last for multiple generations.
"Radiation safety is, without a doubt, a large concern for practicing radiologists today," said Shella Farooki, radiologist and director of research for Columbus Radiology Corp in Columbus, OH.
"However, the current focus does not account for the possibility of harm to future generations from radiation delivered today. I believe that it is equally, if not more important, to consider potential harm to the patient's offspring and their offspring's offspring.
"The effects of ionizing radiation have been demonstrated in neighbouring cells (non-targeted radiation), known as the bystander effect. In addition, ionizing radiation effects have been shown to span generations, resulting in heritable defects in mice. However, we need to bridge the gap between understanding the epigenome functionality and radiation exposure before assuming anything.
"In 2008, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced that 190 million dollars had been earmarked for epigenetics research over the next five years," she added.
In announcing the funding, government officials noted that epigenetics had the potential to explain mechanisms of aging, human development, and the origins of cancer, heart disease, mental illness, as well as other conditions.
"Epigenetics may ultimately turn out to have a greater role in health and disease and treatment of genetics itself; and given this knowledge, one wonders if future trends in diseases will be linked to today's utilization of CT," said Farooki.
"Clearly, long term epidemiological studies are needed to answer this question, but in the meantime, we are faced with the continued struggle of radiation risk versus benefit," she added.
The article has been published in the February issue of the Journal of the American College of Radiology (JACR).