Patients with cancer frequently undergo radiotherapy in their clinical management with unintended irradiation of blood vessels and copiously irrigated organs in which polymorphonuclear leukocytes circulate. Following the observation that such low doses of ionizing radiation are able to induce neutrophils to extrude neutrophil extracellular traps (NET), we have investigated the mechanisms, consequences, and occurrence of such phenomena in patients undergoing radiotherapy.

Experimental Design:

NETosis was analyzed in cultures of neutrophils isolated from healthy donors, patients with cancer, and cancer-bearing mice under confocal microscopy. Cocultures of radiation-induced NETs, immune effector lymphocytes, and tumor cells were used to study the effects of irradiation-induced NETs on immune cytotoxicity. Radiation-induced NETs were intravenously injected to mice for assessing their effects on metastasis. Circulating NETs in irradiated patients with cancer were measured using ELISA methods for detecting MPO–DNA complexes and citrullinated histone 3.


Irradiation of neutrophils with very low γ-radiation doses (0.5–1 Gy) elicits NET formation in a manner dependent on oxidative stress, NADPH oxidase activity, and autocrine IL8. Radiation-induced NETs interfere with NK cell and T-cell cytotoxicity. As a consequence, preinjection of irradiation-induced NETs increases the number of successful metastases in mouse tumor models. Increases in circulating NETs were readily detected in two prospective series of patients following the first fraction of their radiotherapy courses.


NETosis is induced by low-dose ionizing irradiation in a neutrophil-intrinsic fashion, and radiation-induced NETs are able to interfere with immune-mediated cytotoxicity. Radiation-induced NETs foster metastasis in mouse models and can be detected in the circulation of patients undergoing conventional radiotherapy treatments.

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Supplementary data