It is widely stated that wild-type p53 either mediates the activation of cell cycle checkpoints to facilitate DNA repair and promote cell survival, or orchestrates apoptotic cell death following exposure to cancer therapeutic agents. This reigning paradigm has been challenged by numerous discoveries with different human cell types, including solid tumor-derived cell lines. Thus, activation of the p53 signaling pathway by ionizing radiation and other DNA-damaging agents hinders apoptosis and triggers growth arrest (e.g., through premature senescence) in some genetic backgrounds; such growth arrested cells remain viable, secrete growth-promoting factors, and give rise to progeny with stem cell-like properties. In addition, caspase 3, which is best known for its role in the execution phase of apoptosis, has been recently reported to facilitate (rather than suppress) DNA damage-induced genomic instability and carcinogenesis. This observation is consistent with an earlier report demonstrating that caspase 3 mediates secretion of the pro-survival factor prostaglandin E2
, which in turn promotes enrichment of tumor repopulating cells. In this article, we review these and related discoveries and point out novel cancer therapeutic strategies. One of our objectives is to demonstrate the growing complexity of the DNA damage response beyond the conventional “repair and survive, or die” hypothesis.
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