Relative Biological Effectiveness of Neutrons for Cancer Induction and Other Late Effects: A Review of Radiobiological Data

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The risk of secondary cancer induction after a therapeutic irradiation with conventional photon beams is well recognised and documented. However, in general, it is totally overwhelmed by the benefit of the treatment. The same is true to a large extent for the combinations of radiation and drug therapy. After fast neutron therapy, the risk of secondary cancer induction is greater than after photon therapy. This can be expected from the whole set of radiobiological data, accumulated so far, which shows systematically a greater relative biological effectiveness (RBE) for neutrons for all the biological systems which have been investigated. Furthermore, the neutron RBE increases with decreasing dose and there is extensive evidence that neutron RBE is greater for cancer induction and for other late effects relevant in radiation protection than for cell killing at high doses as used in therapy. Almost no reliable human epidemiological data are available so far, and the aim of this work is to derive the best risks estimate for cancer induction after neutron irradiation and in particular fast neutron therapy. Animal data on RBE for tumour induction are analysed. In addition, other biological effects are reviewed, such as life shortening, malignant cell transformation in vitro, chromosome aberrations, genetic effects. These effects can be related, directly or indirectly, to cancer induction to the extent that they express a “genomic” lesion. Since neutron RBE depends on the energy spectrum, the radiation quality has to be carefully specified. Therefore, the microdosimetric spectra are reported each time they are available. Lastly, since heavy-ion beam therapy is being developed at several centres worldwide, the available data on RBE at low doses are reviewed. It can be concluded from this review that the risk of induction of a secondary cancer after fast neutron therapy should not be greater than 10–20 times the risk after photon beam therapy. For heavy ions, and in particular for carbon ions, the risk estimate should be divided by a factor of about 3 due to the reduced integral dose. The risk has to be balanced against the expected improvement in cure rate when the indication for high-LET therapy has been correctly evaluated in well-selected patient groups.