Ionising radiation (IR) is commonly used for cancer therapy; however, its potential influence on the metastatic ability of surviving cancer cells exposed directly or indirectly to IR remains controversial. Metastasis is a multistep process by which the cancer cells dissociate from the initial site, invade, travel through the blood stream or lymphatic system, and colonise distant sites. This complex process has been reported to require cancer cells to undergo epithelial-mesenchymal transition (EMT) by which the cancer cells convert from an adhesive, epithelial to motile, mesenchymal form and is also associated with changes in glycosylation of cell surface proteins, which may be functionally involved in metastasis. In this paper, we give an overview of metastatic mechanisms and of the fundamentals of cancer-associated glycosylation changes. While not attempting a comprehensive review of this wide and fast moving field, we highlight some of the accumulating evidence from in vitro and in vivo models for increased metastatic potential in cancer cells that survive IR, focusing on angiogenesis, cancer cell motility, invasion, and EMT and glycosylation. We also explore the indirect effects in cells exposed to exosomes released from irradiated cells. The results of such studies need to be interpreted with caution and there remains limited evidence that radiotherapy enhances the metastatic capacity of cancers in a clinical setting and undoubtedly has a very positive clinical benefit. However, there is potential that this therapeutic benefit may ultimately be enhanced through a better understanding of the direct and indirect effects of IR on cancer cell behaviour.
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