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NMSU professor wins award for research linking oxygen levels with reduced radiation damage

An international group recently recognized New Mexico State University professor Giancarlo Lopez-Martinez as its 2016 Outstanding New Investigator for his research demonstrating the correlation between decreased oxygen levels and reduced irradiation damage in flies.


Researcher in blue lab coat conducting research in a fume hood.
Giancarlo Lopez-Martinez, assistant professor of biology, conducts research on fruit flies in NMSU?s Comparative Stress Physiology Laboratory. (NMSU photo by Dana Beasley)
Head shot of researcher with sunset in the background.
Giancarlo Lopez-Martinez, assistant professor of biology at NMSU, was recently recognized by the International Dose-Response Society for demonstrating the correlation between decreased oxygen levels and reduced irradiation damage in flies. (Courtesy photo)

Lopez-Martinez was recognized by the International Dose-Response Society for demonstrating that reducing the amount of oxygen flies receive while undergoing radiation ? like what cancer patients receive ? can actually decrease the fly?s post-irradiation damage.

?Radiation poisoning is really just free radical damage. The body normally has systems to deal with that, but we can?t deal with huge amounts of it,? said Lopez-Martinez, assistant professor of biology in the College of Arts and Sciences. ?So, we lower the amount of oxygen in the flies, and this actually lowers post-irradiation damage and the flies can live longer, fuller lives.?

Damage as the result of free radicals, or uncharged molecules, that cells sometimes release when mitochondria convert oxygen into energy, is believed to cause aging and can escalate during radiation treatments, causing further harm to the body.

Lopez-Martinez found that safely lowering the amount of oxygen a fly receives ? or inducing oxidative stress ? actually decreases these negative effects.

The International Dose-Response Society is dedicated to achieving a greater understanding of biological dose-response relationships and their implications for society.

?The term ?dose-response? refers to this idea that everything occurs in a dose, from let?s say zero to the maximum lethal dose,? Lopez-Martinez said. ?The perfect example is water: Moderate amounts of water are good, but if you drink four jugs in five minutes, you?re dead.?

While stressors are often perceived as negative, NMSU?s Comparative Stress Physiology Lab is investigating how certain stressors can sometimes have a protective effect on an organism ? a concept called physiological conditioning hormesis, Lopez-Martinez explained. An example of this is the oxidative stress the lab induces in flies in order to decrease post-irradiation damage.

And it turns out that humans and fruit flies aren?t all that different ? at least from a biological standpoint.

?At the cellular level, they?re completely the same as we are,? Lopez-Martinez said. ?The free radical mechanisms are identical ? not only are they the exact same genes and work the exact same way, but if you took a human gene and put it into a fly, it would work like normal.?

The catch is that fruit flies can live without oxygen for up to 18 hours, while most humans can go only 6 or 7 minutes without causing damage to internal organs, Lopez-Martinez explained. To account for this difference, researchers are testing different oxygen levels for the safest and most effective concentration.

Specifically, researchers are looking for oxygen concentrations somewhere between those found in Las Cruces (18 percent), and villages high in the Andes Mountain, which sit at around 15 percent oxygen.

?The idea is that hopefully not too long from today, maybe in as short as five years, we can use low-oxygen treatments to lower irradiation damage during cancer treatments, so the cancer still gets effected, but the person suffers less,? Lopez-Martinez said.

This project is currently funded through a four-year grant from the New Mexico IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research (NM-INBRE). For more on this research, visit http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0088128. For more information on NMSU?s Comparative Stress Physiology Lab visit wordpress.nmsu.edu/gclopez/.