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Oncogene. 2006 Feb 16;25(7):972-80.

Induction of p21CIP/WAF-1 and G2 arrest by ionizing irradiation impedes caspase-3-mediated apoptosis in human carcinoma cells.

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Department of Hematology, Oncology and Tumor Immunology, University Medical Center Charité, Campus Berlin-Buch, Humboldt University Berlin, Berlin, Germany.


There is an ongoing controversy regarding the relevance of apoptosis induction by ionizing irradiation as compared with other end points including transient or permanent cell cycle arrest of damaged cells. Here, we show that such permanent cell cycle arrest and apoptosis represent two sides of the same coin. MCF-7 cells fail to express procaspase-3, which results in resistance to apoptosis induced by anticancer drugs. Conversely, restoration of procaspase-3 sensitizes MCF-7 cells to chemotherapeutics including epirubicine, etoposide and taxol. In contrast, irradiation does not trigger apoptotic cell death but results in prolonged arrest in the G2 phase of the cell division cycle regardless of procaspase-3 expression. This suggested that the propensity of MCF-7 cells to arrest at the G2 checkpoint results in resistance to apoptosis upon gamma-irradiation. This G2 arrest was associated with upregulation of p21CIP/WAF-1. Inhibition of DNA-damage-induced stress kinases and p21CIP/WAF-1 expression by caffeine abrogated G2 arrest and induced apoptosis of the irradiated cells in a caspase-3-dependent manner. Inhibition of cell cycle progression by adenoviral expression of the cyclin dependent kinase inhibitor p21CIP/WAF-1 prevented apoptosis upon caffeine treatment indicating that cell cycle progression, that is, G2-release, is required for induction of apoptosis. Likewise, cells homozygously deleted for p21CIP/WAF-1 (HCT116 p21-/-) display enhanced irradiation-induced apoptosis via a caspase-3-dependent mechanism. These data indicate that the disruption of G2 checkpoint control overcomes cell cycle arrest and resistance to gamma-irradiation-induced cell death. Thus, DNA damage may trigger a permanent G2 arrest as an initial inactivation step of tumor cells where the phenomenon of apoptosis is hidden unless cell cycle arrest is overcome. The efficient induction of apoptosis upon G2 release thereby depends on the propensity to activate the key executioner caspase-3. This finding is of crucial importance for the understanding of molecular steps underlying the efficacy of ionizing radiation to delete tumor cells.

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