Radiation therapy (RT) plays an important role in cancer treatment. The clinical efficacy of radiation therapy is, however, limited by normal tissue toxicity in areas surrounding the irradiated tumor. Compared to conventional radiation therapy (CONV-RT) in which doses are typically delivered at dose rates between 0.03–0.05 Gy/s, there is evidence that radiation delivered at dose rates of orders of magnitude higher (known as FLASH-RT), dramatically reduces the adverse side effects in normal tissues while achieving similar tumor control. The present study focused on normal cell response and tested the hypothesis that proton-FLASH irradiation preserves mitochondria function of normal cells through the induction of phosphorylated Drp1. Normal human lung fibroblasts (IMR90) were irradiated under ambient oxygen concentration (21%) with protons (LET = 10 keV/µm) delivered at dose rates of either 0.33 Gy/s or 100 Gy/s. Mitochondrial dynamics, functions, cell growth and changes in protein expression levels were investigated. Compared to lower dose-rate proton irradiation, FLASH-RT prevented mitochondria damage characterized by morphological changes, functional changes (membrane potential, mtDNA copy number and oxidative enzyme levels) and oxyradical production. After CONV-RT, the phosphorylated form of Dynamin-1-like protein (p-Drp1) underwent dephosphorylation and aggregated into the mitochondria resulting in mitochondria fission and subsequent cell death. In contrast, p-Drp1 protein level did not significantly change after delivery of similar FLASH doses. Compared with CONV irradiation, FLASH irradiation using protons induces minimal mitochondria damage; our results highlight a possible contribution of Drp1-mediated mitochondrial homeostasis in this potential novel cancer treatment modality.
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