Radioresistance is still an emerging problem for radiotherapy of oral cancer. Aberrant epigenetic alterations play an important role in cancer development, yet the role of such alterations in radioresistance of oral cancer is not fully explored. Using a methylation microarray, we identified promoter hypermethylation of FHIT (fragile histidine triad) in radioresistant OML1-R cells, established from hypofractionated irradiation of parental OML1 radiosensitive oral cancer cells. Further analysis confirmed that transcriptional repression of FHIT was due to promoter hypermethylation, H3K27me3 and overexpression of methyltransferase EZH2 in OML1-R cells. Epigenetic interventions or depletion of EZH2 restored FHIT expression. Ectopic expression of FHIT inhibited tumor growth in both in vitro and in vivo models, while also resensitizing radioresistant cancer cells to irradiation, by restoring Chk2 phosphorylation and G2/M arrest. Clinically, promoter hypermethylation of FHIT inversely correlated with its expression and independently predicted both locoregional control and overall survival in 40 match-paired oral cancer patient samples. Further in vivo therapeutic experiments confirmed that inhibition of DNA methylation significantly resensitized radioresistant oral cancer cell xenograft tumors. These results show that epigenetic silencing of FHIT contributes partially to radioresistance and predicts clinical outcomes in irradiated oral cancer. The radiosensitizing effect of epigenetic interventions warrants further clinical investigation.
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