Exposure of the major salivary glands to ionizing radiation often results in severe alterations in structure and function. The mechanism of these effects is still unknown, and no adequate prevention or treatment is yet available. The purpose of this study was to examine a mechanism based on the assumption that redox-active metal ions, which propagate the production of highly reactive free radicals, are responsible for the unique radiosensitivity of salivary glands. Zinc-desferrioxamine (Zn-DFO) was recently reported to be a very potent protector against the injuries induced by such metal ions in the vicinity of sensitive cellular targets. We chose to examine its protective potential against the damage to salivary glands induced by X rays. Head and neck irradiation (15 Gy) was delivered to rats 90 min after the intraperitoneal administration of 20 mg/kg Zn-DFO. This group was compared to two control groups, irradiated and nonirradiated. At 2 months after irradiation, both systemic and salivary parameters were analyzed. The results demonstrated that X irradiation induced a profound attenuation of body weight (30%) and a reduction of parotid gland saliva flow rate (74%), parotid gland weight (36%), submandibular gland/sublingual gland saliva flow rate (46%), and submandibular/sublingual gland weight (24%) (P < 0.01 for all parameters). The content of potassium in parotid gland saliva was increased by 46% (P < 0.01), while the protein content was unaltered. The increase in the potassium concentration of the saliva is considered to be another indication of salivary gland hypofunction. Administration of Zn-DFO prior to irradiation resulted in partial protection against radiation-induced injury to the parotid gland but not the submandibular gland. In the Zn-DFO-treated and irradiated group, the parotid gland saliva flow rate was reduced by 42%, the weight of the parotid gland was reduced by 13%, and the potassium concentration in the parotid gland saliva was increased by 21% (P < 0.05 for all parameters). These results give credence to the validity of the hypothesis which correlates radiation-induced damage of the salivary glands with the injurious role of intracellular redox-active metal ions. Furthermore, the results offer prospects in the clinical setting, as Zn-DFO is a modification of DFO, which is a clinically approved and widely used medication. Further examination of the clinical use of Zn-DFO is currently under way, focusing on its beneficial protective effect on healthy non-neoplastic tissue.

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