During fractionated radiotherapy, epithelial cell populations are thought to decrease initially, followed by accelerated repopulation to compensate cell loss. However, previous findings in skin with daily 1.1 Gy dose fractions indicate continued and increasing cell depletion. Here we investigated epidermal keratinocyte response with daily 2 Gy fractions as well as accelerated and hypofractionation. Epidermal interfollicular melanocytes were also assessed. Skin-punch biopsies were collected from breast cancer patients before, during and after mastectomy radiotherapy to the thoracic wall with daily 2 Gy fractions for 5 weeks. In addition, 2.4 Gy radiotherapy four times per week and 4 Gy fractions twice per week for 5 weeks, and two times 2 Gy daily for 2.5 weeks, were used. Basal keratinocyte density of the interfollicular epidermis was determined and immunostainings of keratinocytes for DNA double-strand break (DSB) foci, growth arrest, apoptosis and mitosis were quantified. In addition, interfollicular melanocytes were counted. Initially minimal keratinocyte loss was observed followed by pronounced depletion during the second half of treatment and full recovery at 2 weeks post treatment. DSB foci per cell peaked towards the end of treatment. p21-stained cell counts increased during radiotherapy, especially the second half. Apoptotic frequency was low throughout radiotherapy but increased at treatment end. Mitotic cell count was significantly suppressed throughout radiotherapy and did not recover during weekend treatment gaps, but increased more than threefold compared to unexposed skin 2 weeks post-radiotherapy. The number of melanocytes remained constant over the study period. Germinal keratinocyte loss rate increased gradually during daily 2 Gy fractions for 5 weeks, and similarly for hypofractionation. DSB foci number after 2 Gy irradiation revealed an initial radioresistance followed by increasing radiosensitivity. Growth arrest mediated by p21 strongly suggests that cells within or recruited into the cell cycle during treatment are at high risk of loss and do not contribute significantly to repopulation. It is possible that quiescent (G0) cells at treatment completion accounted for the accelerated post-treatment repopulation. Recent knowledge of epidermal tissue regeneration and cell cycle progression during genotoxic and mitogen stress allows for a credible explanation of the current finding. Melanocytes were radioresistant regarding cell depletion.

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