Radiotherapy is a common treatment option for head and neck cancer patients; however, the surrounding healthy salivary glands are often incidentally irradiated during the process. As a result, patients often experience persistent xerostomia and hyposalivation, which deceases their quality of life. Clinically, there is currently no standard of care available to restore salivary function. Repair of epithelial wounds involves cellular proliferation and establishment of polarity in order to regenerate the tissue. This process is partially mediated by protein kinase C zeta (PKCζ), an apical polarity regulator; however, its role following radiation damage is not completely understood. Using an in vivo radiation model, we show a significant decrease in active PKCζ in irradiated murine parotid glands, which correlates with increased proliferation that is sustained through 30 days post-irradiation. Additionally, salivary glands in PKCζ null mice show increased basal proliferation which radiation treatment did not further potentiate. Radiation damage also activates Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK), a proliferation-inducing mitogen-activated protein kinase normally inhibited by PKCζ. In both a PKCζ null mouse model and in primary salivary gland cell cultures treated with a PKCζ inhibitor, there was increased JNK activity and production of downstream proliferative transcripts. Collectively, these findings provide a potential molecular link by which PKCζ suppression following radiation damage promotes JNK activation and radiation-induced compensatory proliferation in the salivary gland.
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