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Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2005 Jul 15;62(4):1187-94.

On the mechanism of salivary gland radiosensitivity.

Author information

  • 1Department of Radiation and Stress Cell Biology, University of Groningen, Building 3215 5th Floor, Ant. Deusinglaan 1, 9717 BM Groningen, The Netherlands.

Erratum in

  • Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2006 Jan 1;64(1):330.



To contribute to the understanding of the enigmatic radiosensitivity of the salivary glands by analysis of appropriate literature, especially with respect to mechanisms of action of early radiation damage, and to supply information on the possibilities of amelioration of radiation damage to the salivary glands after radiotherapy of head-and-neck cancer.


Selected published data on the mechanism of salivary gland radiosensitivity and radioprotection were studied and analyzed.


From a classical point of view, the salivary glands should not respond as rapidly to radiation as they appear to do. Next to the suggestion of massive apoptosis, the leakage of granules and subsequent lysis of acinar cells was suggested to be responsible for the acute radiation-induced function loss of the salivary glands. The main problem with these hypotheses is that recently performed assays show no cell loss during the first days after irradiation, while saliva flow is dramatically diminished. The water secretion is selectively hampered during the first days after single-dose irradiation. Literature is discussed that shows that the compromised cells suffer selective radiation damage to the plasma membrane, disturbing signal transduction primarily affecting watery secretion. Although the cellular composition of the submandibular gland and the parotid gland are different, the damage response is very alike. The acute radiation-induced function loss in both salivary glands can be ameliorated by prophylactic treatment with specific receptor agonists.


The most probable mechanism of action, explaining the enigmatic high radiosensitivity for early effects, is selective radiation damage to the plasma membrane of the secretory cells, disturbing muscarinic receptor stimulated watery secretion. Later damage is mainly due to classical mitotic cell death of progenitor cells, leading to a hampered replacement capacity of the gland for secretory cells, but is also caused by damage to the extracellular environment, preventing proper cell functioning.

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