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PLoS One. 2011;6(8):e23427. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0023427. Epub 2011 Aug 8.

Berberine radiosensitizes human esophageal cancer cells by downregulating homologous recombination repair protein RAD51.

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Key Laboratory of Experimental Teratology, Ministry of Education, and Institute of Molecular Medicine and Genetics, Shandong University School of Medicine, Jinan, Shandong, China.



Esophageal squamous cell carcinomas (ESCC) have poor prognosis. While combined modality of chemotherapy and radiotherapy increases survival, most patients die within five years. Development of agents that confer cancer cell-specific chemo- and radiosensitivity may improve the therapy of ESCC. We here reported the discovery of berberine as a potent radiosensitizing agent on ESCC cells.


Berberine at low concentrations (<15 µM) substantially radiosensitized ESCC cells. X-ray induced DNA double-strand breaks (DSBs) persist longer in ESCC cells pretreated with berberine. Berberine pretreatment led to a significant downregulation of RAD51, a key player in homologous recombination repair, in ESCC cells, but not in non-malignant human cells. Downregulation of RAD51 by RNA interference similarly radiosensitized the cancer cells, and, conversely, introduction of exogenous RAD51 was able to significantly counteract the radiosensitizing effect of berberine, thus establishing RAD51 as a key determinant in radiation sensitivity. We also observed that RAD51 was commonly overexpressed in human ESCC tissues, suggesting that it is necessary to downregulate RAD51 to achieve high radio- or chemotherapeutic efficacy of ESCC in clinic, because overexpression of RAD51 is known to confer radio- and chemoresistance.


Berberine can effectively downregulate RAD51 in conferring radiosensitivity on esophageal cancer cells. Its clinical application as an adjuvant in chemotherapy and radiotherapy of esophageal cancers should be explored.

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