Nonhomologous End Joining Is More Important Than Proton Linear Energy Transfer in Dictating Cell Death

Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2019 Dec 1;105(5):1119-1125. doi: 10.1016/j.ijrobp.2019.08.011. Epub 2019 Aug 16.


Purpose: This study seeks to identify biological factors that may yield a therapeutic advantage of proton therapy versus photon therapy. Specifically, we address the role of nonhomologous end-joining (NHEJ) and homologous recombination (HR) in the survival of cells in response to clinical photon and proton beams.

Methods and materials: We irradiated HT1080, M059K (DNA-PKcs+/+), and HCC1937 human cancer cell lines and their isogenic counterparts HT1080-shDNA-PKcs, HT1080-shRAD51IND, M059J (DNA-PKcs-/-), and HCC1937-BRCA1 (BRCA1 complemented) to assess cell clonogenic survival and γ-H2AX radiation-induced foci. Cells were irradiated with either clinically relevant photons or 1 of 3 proton linear energy transfer (LET) values.

Results: Our results indicate that NHEJ deficiency is more important in dictating cell survival than proton LET. Cells with disrupted HR through BRCA1 mutation showed increased radiosensitivity only for high-LET protons whereas RAD51 depletion showed increased radiosensitivity for both photons and protons. DNA double strand breaks, assessed by γ-H2AX radiation-induced foci, showed greater numbers after 24 hours in cells exposed to higher LET protons. We also observed that NHEJ-deficient cells were unable to repair the vast majority of double strand breaks after 24 hours.

Conclusions: BRCA1 mutation significantly sensitizes cells to protons, but not photons. Loss of NHEJ renders cells hypersensitive to radiation, whereas the relative importance of HR increases with LET across several cell lines. This may be attributable to the more clustered damage induced by higher LET protons, which are harder to repair through NHEJ. This highlights the importance of tumor biology in dictating treatment modality and suggests BRCA1 as a potential biomarker for proton therapy response. Our data also support the use of pharmacologic inhibitors of DNA repair to enhance the sensitivity to different radiation types, although this raises issues for normal tissue toxicity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Calcium-Binding Proteins / genetics
  • Cell Death / genetics*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Survival / genetics
  • Cell Survival / radiation effects
  • DNA Breaks, Double-Stranded
  • DNA End-Joining Repair / physiology*
  • Gene Silencing
  • Genes, BRCA1*
  • Histones / analysis
  • Homologous Recombination / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Linear Energy Transfer*
  • Mutation
  • Photons*
  • Protons*
  • Rad51 Recombinase / genetics
  • Radiation Tolerance / genetics
  • Radiation Tolerance / radiation effects
  • Time Factors


  • CIB1 protein, human
  • Calcium-Binding Proteins
  • H2AX protein, human
  • Histones
  • Protons
  • RAD51 protein, human
  • Rad51 Recombinase