In the possible event of a detonation of an improvised nuclear device (IND), the immediate radiation would consist of both photons (gamma rays) and neutrons. Since neutrons generally have a high relative biological effectiveness (RBE) for most physiological end points, it is important to understand the effect that neutrons would have on the biodosimetry methods that are being developed for medical triage purposes. We previously compared the transcriptomic response in human blood after neutron and photon irradiation. In this study, we analyzed the effect of mixed-field-neutron-photon radiation on gene expression responses in human peripheral blood, to elucidate the neutron contribution in the setting of a radiation exposure from an IND detonation. We used four combinations of mixed neutron-photon exposures, with increasing percentages of neutrons, to a cumulative dose of 3 Gy. The mixed-field exposures consisted of 0%, 5%, 15% and 25% of neutrons, where 0% corresponds to 3 Gy of pure X rays. A maximum neutron exposure, corresponding to 83% neutrons (0.75 Gy) was also used in the study. Increases were observed in both the number and expression level of genes, with increasing percentages of neutrons from 0% to 25% in the mixed-field exposures. Gene ontology analysis showed an overall predominance of TP53 signaling among upregulated genes across all exposures. Some TP53 regulated genes, such as EDA2R, GDF15 and VWCE, demonstrated increased expression with increasing neutron percentages in mixed-field exposures. Immune response, specifically natural-killer-cell mediated signaling, was the most significant biological process associated with downregulated genes. We observed significant suppression of T-cell-mediated signaling in mixed-field exposures, which was absent in the response to pure photons. In this first study investigating gene expression in human blood cells exposed to mixed neutron-photon fields similar to an actual IND explosion, we have identified a number of genes responding to the 3 Gy dose that showed increasing expression as the neutron percentage increased. Such genes may serve as better indicators of the expected biological damage than a report of total physical dose, and thus provide more relevant information for treating physicians.
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Vol. 192 • No. 2