Genetic effects of radiotherapy for childhood cancer

Health Phys. 2003 Jul;85(1):65-80. doi: 10.1097/00004032-200307000-00013.


Radiation-induced heritable diseases have not been demonstrated in humans and estimates of genetic risks for protection purposes are based on mouse experiments. The most comprehensive epidemiologic study is of the Japanese atomic bomb survivors and their children, which found little evidence for inherited defects attributable to parental radiation. Studies of workers exposed to occupational radiation or of populations exposed to environmental radiation appear too small and exposures too low to convincingly detect inherited genetic damage. In contrast, survivors of childhood cancer form the largest group of people exposed to high doses of ionizing radiation before reproduction and offer unique advantages for studying trans-generation effects. A wide range of gonadal doses are possible, several comparison groups are readily available (including siblings), and there is a strong willingness among cancer survivors to participate in health studies. Cancer patients also have detailed medical records that facilitate both the accurate estimation of gonadal doses and the assessment of potentially confounding factors, such as intercurrent illness, personal and family medical histories, lifestyle characteristics such as tobacco use, and circumstances at delivery. An international study is nearing completion of over 25,000 survivors of childhood cancer in the United States and Denmark who gave birth to or fathered over 6,000 children. Doses to gonads are being reconstructed from radiotherapy records with 46% over 100 mSv and 16% over 1,000 mSv. Adverse pregnancy outcomes being evaluated include major congenital malformations, cytogenetic abnormalities, stillbirths, miscarriages, neonatal deaths, total deaths, leukemia and childhood cancers, altered sex ratio, and birth weight. The main analyses are based on dose-response evaluations. Blood studies of trios (cancer survivor, spouse or partner and offspring) have been initiated to evaluate mechanistic evidence for the transmission of any radiation-induced genetic damage such as minisatellite mutations. Markers of cancer susceptibility such as chromosomal radiosensitivity and genotype profile will also be examined. In the United States series to date, 4,214 children were born to cancer survivors among whom 157 (3.7%) genetic diseases were reported in contrast to 95 (4.1%) reported conditions among 2,339 children born to sibling controls. In the Denmark series the comparable figures were 82 (6.1%) birth defects among 1,345 children of cancer survivors and 211 (5.0%) among 4,225 children of sibling controls. Coupled with prior studies, these preliminary findings, if sustained by ongoing dose-response analyses, provide reassurance that cancer treatments including radiotherapy do not carry much if any risk for inherited genetic disease in offspring conceived after exposure.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Abnormalities, Radiation-Induced / epidemiology*
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cohort Studies
  • Denmark / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Maternal Exposure / adverse effects
  • Neoplasms / radiotherapy
  • Paternal Exposure / adverse effects
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Outcome / genetics*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects
  • Radiometry / methods
  • Radiotherapy / adverse effects*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Risk Assessment / methods*
  • Risk Factors
  • Survivors*