The p53 gene as a modifier of intrinsic radiosensitivity: Implications for radiotherapy

Robert G. Bristow, Samuel Benchimol

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Background and purpose: Experimental studies have implicated the normal or 'wild type' p53 protein (i.e. WTp53) in the cellular response to ionizing radiation and other DNA damaging agents. Whether altered WTp53 protein function can lead to changes in cellular radiosensitivity and/or clinical radiocurability remains an area of ongoing study. In this review, we describe the potential implications of altered WTp53 protein function in normal and tumour cells as it relates to clinical radiotherapy, and describe novel treatment strategies designed to re-institute WTp53 protein function as a means of sensitizing cells to ionizing radiation. Methods and materials: A number of experimental and clinical studies are critically reviewed with respect to the role of the p53 protein as a determinant of cellular ontogenesis, genomic stability, apoptosis, DNA repair and radioresponse in normal and transformed mammalian cells. Results: In normal fibroblasts, exposure to ionizing radiation leads to a G1 cell cycle delay (i.e, a 'G1 checkpoint') as a result of WTp53-mediated inhibition of G1-cyclin-kinase and retinoblastoma (pRb) protein function. The G1 checkpoint response is absent in tumour cells which express a mutant form of the p53 protein (i.e. MTp53), leading to acquired radioresistance in vitro. Depending on the cell type studied, this increase in cellular radiation survival can be mediated through decreased radiation-induced apoptosis, or altered kinetics of the radiation- induced G1 checkpoint. Recent biochemical studies support an indirect role for the p53 protein in both nucleotide excision and recombinational DNA repair pathways. However, based on clinicopathologic data, it remains unclear as to whether WTp53 protein function can predict for human tumour radiocurability and normal tissue radioresponse. Conclusions: Alterations in cell cycle control secondary to aberrant WTp53 protein function may be clinically significant if they lead to the acquisition of mutant cellular phenotypes, including the radioresistant phenotype. Pre-clinical studies suggest that these phenotypes may be reversed using adenovirus-mediated gene therapy or pharmacologic strategies designed to re-institute WTp53 protein function. Our analysis of the published data strongly argues for the use of functional assays for the determination of WTp53 protein function in studies which attempt to correlate normal and tumour tissue radioresponse with p53 genotype, or p53 protein expression.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)197-223
Number of pages27
JournalRadiotherapy and Oncology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 1996


  • Apoptosis
  • Cell cycle arrest
  • DNA repair
  • Genetic instability
  • p53
  • Radiosensitivity


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