Ionizing radiation (IR)-induced cellular damage is implicated in carcinogenesis as well as therapy of cancer. Advances in radiation therapy have led to the decrease in dosage and localizing the effects to the tumor; however, the development of radioresistance in cancer cells and radiation toxicity to normal tissues are still the major concerns. The development of radioresistance involves several mechanisms, including the activation of mitogenic and survival signaling, induction of DNA repair, and changes in redox signaling and epigenetic regulation. The current strategy of combining radiation with standard cytotoxic chemotherapeutic agents can potentially lead to unwanted side effects due to both agents. Thus agents are needed that could improve the efficacy of radiation killing of cancer cells and prevent the damage to normal cells and tissues caused by the direct and bystander effects of radiation, without have its own systemic toxicity. Chemopreventive phytochemicals, usually non-toxic agents with both cancer preventive and therapeutic activities, could rightly fit in this approach. In this regard, naturally occurring compounds, including curcumin, parthenolide, genistein, gossypol, ellagic acid, withaferin, plumbagin and resveratrol, have shown considerable potential. These agents suppress the radiation-induced activation of receptor tyrosine kinases and nuclear factor-κB signaling, can modify cell survival and DNA repair efficacy, and may potentiate ceramide signaling. These radiosensitizing and counter radioresistance mechanisms of phytochemicals in cancer cells are also associated with changes in epigenetic gene regulation. Because radioresistance involves multiple mechanisms, more studies are needed to discover novel phytochemicals having multiple mechanisms of radiosensitization and to overcome radioresistance of cancer cells. Pre-clinical studies are needed to address the appropriate dosage, timing, and duration of the application of phytochemicals with radiation to justify clinical trials. Nonetheless, some phytochemicals in combination with IR may play a significant role in enhancing the therapeutic index of cancer treatment.
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