Colorado State Researcher’s Work in Radiation Science Honored with Award from Birthplace of German Physicist, Discoverer of X-Rays

A Colorado State University professor recognized for his groundbreaking research on the biological effects of radiation will be honored by the German town where the discoverer of X-rays was born.

University Distinguished Professor Mortimer M. Elkind will receive the Roentgen-Plakette Award April 26 in a ceremony at the German Roentgen Museum in Remscheid-Lennep, the birthplace of physicist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen.

Elkind is the sixth American scientist to receive the Roentgen-Plakette award over its 46-year history and joins an impressive list of recipients, including several winners of the Nobel Prize.

"It’d be hard to think of medical science today without Roentgen’s discovery of X-rays," Elkind said. "It is an honor to be part of such an elite group of scientists who have received this award and to have the opportunity to visit the German town where such a great scientist was born." Roentgen discovered X-rays in 1895, for which he received the first Nobel Prize for physics in 1901. During an experiment, Roentgen noticed that barium platinocyanide crystals gave off a florescent glow–even when shielded by black cardboard or thin metal sheets–and correctly theorized that it could only have been caused by some very short waves of radiation. Roentgen, who coined the term X-ray, later applied his finding to medical uses.

Elkind, a professor in the department of radiological health sciences, has made several key scientific contributions in radiation therapy of cancer. One of the researcher’s most noted studies showed that surviving cells repair themselves after exposure to radiation, a finding that led to a better understanding of how to adjust radiation exposures for maximum effect on tumors with minimum harm to normal tissue.

Elkind’s research helped establish the scientific basis for current radiation therapy, which is administered to about one- third of all cancer patients worldwide. His contribution was so significant that the process by which cells repair radiation damage is commonly known as Elkind repair.

Today, Elkind is looking deeper into the area of how cells repair after exposure to radiation. His studies in radiation- induced breast cancer suggest that unlike other tissues in the body, breast cells in susceptible women do not fully repair themselves–even when there are long periods between radiation exposures.

Elkind suggests that breast cancer is one of the leading causes of death in women today, possibly because of diagnostic radiation exposures administered up to 40 years ago.

For example, women exposed to high doses of radiation by the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki experienced a high incidence of breast cancer years later. Other studies showed that women who were exposed to radiation as infants in the treatment of enlarged thymus suffered, nearly 40 years later, a higher number of breast cancers compared to their unexposed sisters. Radiation exposures used in mammography decades ago could have been 10 to 20 times higher than they are today, a possible link to a nationwide increase in breast cancer.

"Valuable molecular work has led to the discovery of breast cancer genes which may be inherited in mutated form. But these genes account for only 10 percent of all breast cancers," Elkind said. "My theory is that some external event is required to trigger these genes and radiation can certainly make mutations." Elkind will discuss his theory at a lecture in Remscheid-Lennep.

Over the past 30 years, Elkind has received many distinguished national and international awards. These include the E.O. Lawrence Award from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission in 1967 and the Charles F. Kettering Prize from the General Motors Cancer Research Foundation in 1989. In 1986, Elkind was designated a University Distinguished Professor, a rank held by only 12 faculty at Colorado State. Elkind currently sits on the board of directors of the National Coalition for Cancer Research.