Ohtaki, K., Kodama, Y., Nakano, M., Itoh, M., Awa, A. A., Cologne, J. and Nakamura, N. Human Fetuses do not Register Chromosome Damage Inflicted by Radiation Exposure in Lymphoid Precursor Cells except for a Small but Significant Effect at Low Doses. Radiat. Res. 161, 373–379 (2004).
Human fetuses are thought to be highly sensitive to radiation exposure because diagnostic low-dose X rays have been suggested to increase the risk of childhood leukemia. However, animal studies generally have not demonstrated a high radiosensitivity of fetuses, and the underlying causes for the discrepancy remain unidentified. We examined atomic bomb survivors exposed in utero for translocation frequencies in blood lymphocytes at 40 years of age. Contrary to our expectation of a greater radiosensitivity in fetuses than in adults, the frequency did not increase with dose except for a small increase (less than 1%) at doses below 0.1 Sv, which was statistically significant. We interpret the results as indicating that fetal lymphoid precursor cells comprise two subpopulations. One is small in number, sensitive to the induction of both translocations and cell killing, but rapidly diminishing above 50 mSv. The other is the major fraction but is insensitive to registering damage expressed as chromosome aberrations. Our results provide a biological basis for resolving the long-standing controversy that a substantial risk of childhood leukemia is implicated in human fetuses exposed to low-dose X rays whereas animal studies involving mainly high-dose exposures generally do not confirm it.