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Mol Pharmacol. 2008 May;73(5):1491-501. doi: 10.1124/mol.107.043554. Epub 2008 Feb 5.

The chemopreventive agent curcumin is a potent radiosensitizer of human cervical tumor cells via increased reactive oxygen species production and overactivation of the mitogen-activated protein kinase pathway.

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Department of Radiation Oncology, University of Pennsylvania, 3620 Hamilton Walk, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA.


Cervical cancer is the second most common malignancy among women worldwide and is highly radioresistant, often resulting in local treatment failure. For locally advanced disease, radiation is combined with low-dose chemotherapy; however, this modality often leads to severe toxicity. Curcumin, a polyphenol extracted from rhizomes of the plant Curcuma longa, is a widely studied chemopreventive agent that was shown to have a low toxicity profile in three human clinical trials. Here, we show that pretreatment of two cervical carcinoma cell lines, HeLa and SiHa, with curcumin before ionizing radiation (IR) resulted in significant dose-dependent radiosensitization of these cells. It is noteworthy that curcumin failed to radiosensitize normal human diploid fibroblasts. Although in tumor cells, curcumin did not significantly affect IR-induced activation of AKT and nuclear factor-kappaB, we found that it caused a significant increase in the production of reactive oxygen species, which further led to sustained extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) 1/2 activation. The antioxidant compound N-acetylcysteine blocked the curcumin-induced increased reactive oxygen species (ROS), sustained activation of ERK1/2, and decreased survival after IR in HeLa cells, implicating a ROS-dependent mechanism for curcumin radiosensitivity. Moreover, PD98059 (2'-amino-3'-methoxyflavone)-, PD184352- [2-(2-chloro-4-iodo-phenylamino)-N-cyclopropylmethoxy-3,4-difluoro-benzamide], and U0126 [1,4-diamino-2,3-dicyano-1,4-bis(2-aminophynylthio)butadiene]-specific inhibitors of mitogen-activated protein kinase kinase 1/2 (MEK1/2) blocked curcumin-mediated radiosensitization, demonstrating that the sustained ERK1/2 activation resulting from ROS generation leads to curcumin-mediated radiosensitization. Together, these results suggest a novel mechanism for curcumin-mediated radiosensitization involving increased ROS and ERK1/2 activation and suggest that curcumin application (either systemically or topically) may be an effective radiation modifying modality in the treatment of cervical cancer.

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