Differential gene expression in primary fibroblasts induced by proton and cobalt-60 beam irradiation

Acta Oncol. 2017 Nov;56(11):1406-1412. doi: 10.1080/0284186X.2017.1351623. Epub 2017 Sep 8.


Introduction: Proton beam therapy delivers a more conformal dose distribution than conventional radiotherapy, thus improving normal tissue sparring. Increasing linear energy transfer (LET) along the proton track increases the relative biological effectiveness (RBE) near the distal edge of the Spread-out Bragg peak (SOBP). The severity of normal tissue side effects following photon beam radiotherapy vary considerably between patients.

Aim: The dual study aim was to identify gene expression patterns specific to radiation type and proton beam position, and to assess whether individual radiation sensitivity influences gene expression levels in fibroblast cultures irradiated in vitro.

Methods: The study includes 30 primary fibroblast cell cultures from patients previously classified as either radiosensitive or radioresistant. Cells were irradiated at three different positions in the proton beam profile: entrance, mid-SOBP and at the SOBP distal edge. Dose was delivered in three fractions × 3.5 Gy(RBE) (RBE 1.1). Cobalt-60 (Co-60) irradiation was used as reference. Real-time qPCR was performed to determine gene expression levels for 17 genes associated with inflammation response, fibrosis and angiogenesis.

Results: Differences in median gene expression levels were observed for multiple genes such as IL6, IL8 and CXCL12. Median IL6 expression was 30%, 24% and 47% lower in entrance, mid-SOBP and SOBP distal edge groups than in Co-60 irradiated cells. No genes were found to be oppositely regulated by different radiation qualities. Radiosensitive patient samples had the strongest regulation of gene expression; irrespective of radiation type.

Conclusions: Our findings indicate that the increased LET at the SOBP distal edge position did not generally lead to increased transcriptive response in primary fibroblast cultures. Inflammatory factors were generally less extensively upregulated by proton irradiation compared with Co-60 photon irradiation. These effects may possibly influence the development of normal tissue damage in patients treated with proton beam therapy.

MeSH terms

  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cobalt Radioisotopes / pharmacology*
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Radiation
  • Fibroblasts / cytology
  • Fibroblasts / metabolism*
  • Fibroblasts / radiation effects
  • Fibrosis / diagnosis
  • Fibrosis / etiology
  • Fibrosis / genetics*
  • Gene Expression Profiling / methods*
  • Gene Expression Regulation / radiation effects*
  • Humans
  • Linear Energy Transfer
  • Protons*


  • Cobalt Radioisotopes
  • Protons
  • Cobalt-60