The bystander effect

Eric J Hall
Health Physics 2003, 85 (1): 31-5
The bystander effect refers to the induction of biological effects in cells that are not directly traversed by a charged particle. The data available concerning the bystander effect fall into two quite separate categories, and it is not certain that the two groups of experiments are addressing the same phenomenon. First, there are experiments involving the transfer of medium from irradiated cells, which results in a biological effect in unirradiated cells. Second, there is the use of sophisticated single particle microbeams, which allow specific cells to be irradiated and biological effects studied in their neighbors; in this case communication is by gap junction. Medium transfer experiments have shown a bystander effect for cell lethality, chromosomal aberrations and cell cycle delay. The type of cell, epithelial vs. fibroblast, appears to be important. Experiments suggest that the effect is due to a molecule secreted by irradiated cells, which is capable of transferring damage to distant cells. Use of a single microbeam has allowed the demonstration of a bystander effect for chromosomal aberrations, cell lethality, mutation, and oncogenic transformation. When cells are in close contact, allowing gap junction communication, the bystander effect is a much larger magnitude than the phenomenon demonstrated in medium transfer experiments. A bystander effect has been demonstrated for both high- and low-LET radiations but it is usually larger for densely ionizing radiation such as alpha particles. Experiments have not yet been devised to demonstrate a comparable bystander effect on a three-dimensional normal tissue. Bystander studies imply that the target for the biological effects of radiation is larger than the cell and this could make a simple linear extrapolation of radiation risks from high to low doses of questionable validity.

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