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Ultrasoft x-rays provide a unique tool for investigating the intracellular mechanisms of radiation action. Secondary electrons are produced with a well defined energy and a range comparable with that of critical structures in the cell. Copper L characteristic x-rays of weighted average energy of 956 eV interact within the cell, mainly with the oxygen atom, typically producing a photoelectron with energy 424 eV (95%) followed by an Auger electron with an average energy of 505 eV, with a combined continuous slowing down approximation (csda) range of ~40 nm. The attenuation through the cell is similar to that of carbon K x-rays (277 eV, single electron), therefore a useful comparison can be made due to similar dose-averaging factors but different electron configurations (total range, and pairs versus singlets). The production, absorption, dosimetry and biological implications of Cu L x-rays using the Medical Research Council cold cathode source is described extending the number of energies available for study in the ultrasoft region. Design parameters were optimized to overcome the inherently low L-characteristic-to-bremsstrahlung yield ratio. Surface absorbed dose rates of 1 Gy min-1 have been obtained with a bremsstrahlung contamination of less than 0.5%. A confocal microscope was used to make thickness measurements on live cells to allow careful determination of the mean absorbed dose. Survival curves for V79-4 Chinese hamster cells were obtained, showing that Cu L x-rays are substantially more lethal per unit dose than are hard x-rays or χ-rays, with a relative biological effectiveness (RBE) of 1.8. The data are consistent with the hypothesis that clustered damage at the DNA/chromatin level produced by low- energy electrons is biologically more effective.

Original publication




Journal article


Physics in Medicine and Biology

Publication Date





351 - 363