© The Author 2014. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Japan Radiation Research Society and Japanese Society for Radiation Oncology.
The outcome of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (CNPP) accident was that a huge number of people were exposed to ionizing radiation. Previous studies of CNPP clean-up workers from Latvia revealed a high occurrence of age-associated degenerative diseases and cancer in young adults, as well as a high mortality as a result of cardiovascular disorders at age 45-54 years. DNA tandem repeats that cap chromosome ends, known as telomeres, are sensitive to oxidative damage and exposure to ionizing radiation. Telomeres are important in aging processes and carcinogenesis. The aim of this study was to investigate the long-term effect of protracted ionizing radiation exposure on telomere length in CNPP clean-up workers. Relative telomere length (RTL) was measured in peripheral blood leukocytes of 595 CNPP clean-up workers and 236 gender- and age-matched controls using real-time quantitative polymerase chain reaction (q-PCR). Close attention was paid to participation year and tasks performed during the worker's stay in Chernobyl, health status, and RTL differences between subgroups. Telomere shortening was not found in CNPP clean-up workers; on the contrary, their RTL was slightly greater than in controls (P = 0.001). Longer telomeres were found in people who worked during 1986, in those undertaking 'dirty' tasks (digging and deactivation), and in people with cancer. Shorter telomeres appeared frequently in those with cataract, osteoporosis, atherosclerosis, or coronary heart disease. We conclude that the longer telomeres revealed in people more heavily exposed to ionizing radiation probably indicate activation of telomerase as a chromosome healing mechanism following damage, and reflect defects in telomerase regulation that could potentiate carcinogenesis.