California State University, Long Beach

Radical Treatment

California State University, Long Beach Professors Dr. Stephen Mezyk and Dr. Joshua Cotter study radiation from the vantage points of two different scientific disciplines – yet their research reaches similar conclusions: radiation offers dramatic impacts, both positive and negative, on human and environmental health.

Mezyk, professor of physical chemistry, is studying radiation for its potential to purify water and its impact on current efforts to reprocess and store nuclear waste, while Cotter has shown that even clinical doses of radiation inhibit damaged muscles from regenerating.

‘Radical’ Treatment

Mezyk, who recently received the 2016 CSULB Provost’s Award for Impact Accomplishment of the Year in Research, Scholarly or Creative Activities, first became interested in radiation when he used radiation to generate radicals—atoms, molecules or ions that have unpaired valence electrons—in a clean, easy and quantifiable way. He noticed how quickly the radicals reacted to organic contaminants in water and realized they could be used to destroy potentially dangerous chemicals in polluted water sources.

Using radiation as water treatment isn’t a new concept; one of the world’s most advanced wastewater purification systems is located in nearby Orange County, CA. It uses ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide to purify water, which then percolates into the groundwater basin to recharge the aquifer. Other countries such as Russia and Korea use radiation for similar purposes.

More importantly, Mezyk’s research aims to prove that radiation can be used safely and economically to effectively break down chemical contaminants such as antibiotics from treated waters. This would help prevent the current increase in antibiotic-resistant bacteria being seen around the world.

“This could make a huge difference,” Mezyk says, “because we are throwing away billions of gallons of water into the ocean on a daily basis. We have the technology, to make safe, potable water for drinking.”

This research is especially important for southwestern states such as California and Texas—both of which are faced with a historic, years-long drought. These states are now being asked to consider advanced, radiation-based, wastewater treatments and desalination plants as alternatives to expensive and increasingly unreliable current water sources.

In addition, Mezyk spends much of his time researching how radiation impacts nuclear waste reprocessing efforts across the world. He is working with other chemists and engineers to see how the inevitable radiation present when reprocessing spent fuel forms radicals in both water and the organic solvents that are used, and how these radicals interfere with the nuclear fuel reprocessing schemes being used, or planned at large-scale. Such treatment is necessary to minimize the future time necessary to store the used fuels in special underground repositories.

Cotter, assistant professor of exercise physiology, was initiated into the study of radiation and its effects on skeletal muscle as a post-doctoral fellow in the department of Orthopaedics at University of California, Irvine. Upon his 2015 hiring at California State Long Beach he has continued to study radiation’s effects on satellite cells, or muscle stem cells, which are important for the regeneration of muscle following injury and disease.

Cotter says his research on mice has shown that therapeutic doses of radiation like those from X-rays and other medical machinery inhibit the ability of skeletal muscles to heal, yet have very little effect on healthy, undamaged muscle tissue.

On his team are NIH BUILD scholar Krishan Bhakta and UROP student Vinny Alvionita. The BUILD (Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity) Program offers intensive research-training opportunities for undergraduate students interested in pursuing a research career in health-related research. The Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) is a one-year program that offers first and second-year students the chance to participate in the research and creative process with faculty.

“I believe that research is crucial to learning about and improving the world we live in. Krishan Bhakta says, “Currently, my research revolves around skeletal muscle, and as I continue on my career path, I want to apply the knowledge that I have obtained to improving the health and rehabilitation of others.”

“The next study we want to do is to see if exercise may protect muscles against the effects of radiation,” Dr. Cotter says. “Research involving mechanical stretch of satellite cells, or perhaps thought of as exercise for cells, has shown a protective effect with satellite cells when exposed to radiation. Although much more research needs to be done, this could shed some light on yet another benefit to exercise.”

He says he and his student researchers think it’s exciting to see how radiation affects cells and tissues in the body. “Interestingly, radiation is not always bad especially when considering exposure time and magnitude. Some studies have even shown that low doses of radiation may actually provide a radioadaptive response in some types of cells.”

Cotter and Mezyk’s research may approach radiation from different angles, but the potential impact their research holds is undeniable.

Words: Cathi Douglas