Friday, May 23, 2014

The Amazing World of Auger Electrons

When analyzing how ionizing radiation interacts with biological tissue, one important issue is the role of Auger electrons. In the 4th edition of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology, Russ Hobbie and I introduce Auger electrons in Chapter 15 (Interaction of Photons and Charged Particles with Matter). An X-ray or charged particle ionizes an atom, leaving a hole in the electron shell.
The hole in the shell can be filled by two competing processes: a radiative transition, in which a photon is emitted as an electron falls into the hole from a higher level, or a nonradiative or radiationless transition, such as the emission of an Auger electron from a higher level as a second electron falls from a higher level to fill the hole.
We consider Auger electrons again in Chapter 17 (Nuclear Physics and Nuclear Medicine). In some cases, a cascade of relatively low energy electrons are produced by one ionizing event.
The Auger cascade means that several of these electrons are emitted per transition. If a radionuclide is in a compound that is bound to DNA, the effect of several electrons released in the same place is to cause as much damage per unit dose as high-LET [linear energy transfer] radiation….Many electrons (up to 25) can be emitted for one nuclear transformation, depending on the decay scheme [Howell (1992)]. The electron energies vary from a few eV to a few tens of keV. Corresponding electron ranges are from less than 1 nm to 15 μm. The diameter of the DNA double helix is about 2 nm…When it [the radionuclide emitting Auger electrons] is bound to the DNA, survival curves are much steeper, as with the α particles in Fig. 15.32 (RBE [relative biological effectiveness] ≈ 8)
The Amazing World of Auger Electrons, by  Amin Kassis (International Journal of Radiation Biology, 80: 789-803), superimposed on the cover of Intermediate Physics for Medicine and Biology.
“The Amazing World
of Auger Electrons.”
In IPMB, Russ and I cite a paper by Amin Kassis with the wonderful title “The Amazing World of Auger Electrons” (International Journal of Radiation Biology, Volume 80, Pages 789–803). Kassis begins
In 1925, a 26-year-old French physicist named Pierre Victor Auger published a paper describing a new phenomenon that later became known as the Auger effect (Auger 1925). He reported that the irradiation of a cloud chamber with low-energy, X-ray photons results in the production of multiple electron tracts and concluded that this event is a consequence of the ejection of inner-shell electrons from the irradiated atoms, the creation of primary electron vacancies within these atoms, a complex series of vacancy cascades composed of both radiative and nonradiative transitions, and the ejection of very low-energy electrons from these atoms. In later studies, it was recognized that such low-energy electrons are also ejected by many radionuclides that decay by electron capture (EC) and/or internal conversion (IC). Both of these processes introduce primary vacancies in the inner electronic shells of the daughter atoms which are rapidly filled up by a cascade of electron transitions that move the vacancy towards the outermost shell. Each inner-shell electron transition results in the emission of either a characteristic atomic X-ray photon or low-energy and short-range monoenergetic electrons (collectively known as Auger electrons, in honor of their discoverer).
Typically an atom undergoing EC and/or IC emits several electrons with energies ranging from a few eV to approximately 100 keV. Consequently, the range of Auger electrons in water is from a fraction of a nanometer to several hundreds of micrometers (table 1). The ejection of these electrons leaves the decaying atoms transiently with a high positive charge and leads to the deposition of highly localized energy around the decay site. The dissipation of the potential energy associated with the high positive charge and its neutralization may, in principle, also act concomitantly and be responsible for any observed biological effects. Finally, it is important to note that unlike energetic electrons, whose linear energy transfer (LET) is low (~0.2 keV/mm) along most of their rather long linear path (up to one cm in tissue), i.e. ionizations occur sparingly, the LET of Auger electrons rises dramatically to ~26 keV/mm (figure 1) especially at very low energies (35–550 eV) (Cole 1969) with the ionizations clustered within several cubic nanometers around the point of decay. From a radiobiological prospective, it is important to recall that the biological functions of mammalian cells depend on both the genomic sequences of double- stranded DNA and the proteins that form the nucleoprotein complex, i.e. chromatin, and to note that the organization of this polymer involves many structural level compactions (nucleosome, 30-nm chromatin fiber, chromonema fiber, etc.) [see Fig. 16.33 in IPMB] whose dimensions are all within the range of these high-LET (8–26 keV/mm), low-energy low-energy (less than 1.6 keV), short-range (less than 130 nm) electrons.
An example of an isotope that emits a cascade of Auger electrons is iodine-125. It has a half-life of 59 days, and decays to an excited state of tellurium-125. The atom deexcites by various mechanisms, including up to 21 Auger electrons with energies of 50 to 500 eV each. Kassis says
Among all the radionuclides that decay by EC and/or IC, the Auger electron emitter investigated most extensively is iodine-125. Because these processes lead to the emission of electrons with very low energies, early studies examined the radiotoxicity of iodine-125 in mammalian cells when the radioelement was incorporated into nuclear DNA consequent to in vitro incubations of mammalian cells with the thymidine analog 5-[125I]iodo-2’-deoxyuridine (125IdUrd). These studies demonstrated that the decay of DNA-incorporated 125I is highly toxic to mammalian cells.
I find it useful to compare 125I with 131I, another iodine radioisotope used in nuclear medicine. 131I undergoes beta decay, followed by emission of a gamma ray. Both the high energy electron from beta decay (up to 606 keV) and the gamma ray (364 keV) can travel millimeters in tissue, passing through many cells. In contrast, 125I releases its cascade of Auger electrons, resulting in extensive damage over a very small distance.

Civil War buffs might compare these two isotopes to the artillery ammunition of the 1860s. 131I is like a cannon firing shot (solid cannon balls), whereas 125I is like firing canister. If you are trying to take out an enemy battery 1000 yards away, you need shot. But if you are trying to repulse an enemy infantry charge that is only 10 yards away, you use canister or, better, double canister. 131I is shot, and 125I is double canister.

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