Health risks due to exposure to low-dose/low-dose-rate radiation alone or when combined with acute irradiation are not yet clearly defined. This study quantified the effects of protracted exposure to low-dose/low-dose-rate γ rays with and without acute exposure to protons on the response of immune and other cell populations. C57BL/6 mice were irradiated with 57Co (0.05 Gy at 0.025 cGy/h); subsets were subsequently exposed to high-dose/high-dose-rate proton radiation (250 MeV; 2 or 3 Gy at 0.5 Gy/min). Analyses were performed at 4 and 17 days postexposure. Spleen and thymus masses relative to body mass were decreased on day 4 after proton irradiation with or without pre-exposure to γ rays; by day 17, however, the decrease was attenuated by the priming dose. Proton dose-dependent decreases, either with or without pre-exposure to γ rays, occurred in white blood cell, lymphocyte and granulocyte counts in blood but not in spleen. A similar pattern was found for lymphocyte subpopulations, including CD3 T, CD19 B, CD4 T, CD8 T and NK1.1 natural killer (NK) cells. Spontaneous DNA synthesis by leukocytes after proton irradiation was high in blood on day 4 and high in spleen on day 17; priming with γ radiation attenuated the effect of 3 Gy in both body compartments. Some differences were also noted among groups in erythrocyte and thrombocyte characteristics. Analysis of splenocytes activated with anti-CD3/anti-CD28 antibodies showed changes in T-helper 1 (Th1) and Th2 cytokines. Overall, the data demonstrate that pre-exposure of an intact mammal to low-dose/low-dose-rate γ rays can attenuate the response to acute exposure to proton radiation with respect to at least some cell populations.
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