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Radiation harms blood vessels before gut

When physicians aim radiation at a tumor in the pancreas or irradiate the entire body of someone with leukemia, the therapy can devastate the stomach and abdomen. Nausea, diarrhea, infections, and even death may result.

These responses occur because the radiation wipes out the linings of the stomach and intestines. But how? Most investigators argue that radiation directly kills epithelial stem cells, which normally produce the cellular linings. Other scientists challenge that view, contending that the radiation destroys blood vessels that sustain the stem cells, indirectly affecting the lining.

New studies of irradiated mice support this indirect pathway, say Zvi Fuks and his colleagues at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. They further suggest in the July 13 Science that their work may someday lead to drugs that make radiation therapy safer.

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