Exposure to a moderate or high total-body dose of radiation induces not only acute bone marrow suppression but also residual (or long-term) bone marrow injury. The induction of residual bone marrow injury is primarily attributed to the induction of hematopoietic cell senescence by ionizing radiation. However, the mechanisms underlying radiation-induced hematopoietic cell senescence are not known and thus were investigated in the present study. Using a well-established long-term bone marrow cell culture system, we found that radiation induced hematopoietic cell senescence at least in part via activation of p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase (p38). This suggestion is supported by the finding that exposure to radiation selectively activated p38 in bone marrow hematopoietic cells. The activation was associated with a significant reduction in hematopoietic cell clonogenic function, an increased expression of p16INK4a (p16), and an elevated senescence-associated β-galactosidase (SA-β-gal) activity. All these changes were attenuated by p38 inhibition with a specific p38 inhibitor, SB203580 (SB). Selective activation of p38 was also observed in bone marrow hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) after mice were exposed to a sublethal total-body dose (6.5 Gy) of radiation. Treatment of the irradiated mice with SB after total-body irradiation (TBI) increased the frequencies of HSCs and hematopoietic progenitor cells (HPCs) in their bone marrow and the clonogenic functions of the irradiated HSCs and HPCs. These findings suggest that activation of p38 plays a role in mediating radiation-induced hematopoietic cell senescence and residual bone marrow suppression.

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