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."
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.
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