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Autophagy is a natural self-degradative process by which cells eliminate misfolded proteins and damaged organelles. Autophagy has been shown to have multiple functions in tumor cells that may be dependent on the tumor type and the treatment conditions. Autophagy can have a cytoprotective role and be thought of as a survival mechanism or be cytotoxic in nature and mediate cell death. Radiation, one of the primary treatments for many different types of cancer, almost uniformly promotes autophagy in tumor cells. While autophagy produced in response to radiation is often considered to be cytoprotective, radiation-induced autophagy has also been shown to mediate susceptibility to radiation. This review addresses the complexity of autophagy in response to radiation treatment in three different cancer models, specifically lung cancer, breast cancer and glioblastoma. A deeper understanding of the different roles played by autophagy in response to radiation should facilitate the development of approaches for enhancing the therapeutic utility of radiation by providing strategies for combination treatment with unique radiosensitizers as well as preventing the initiation of strategies which are likely to attenuate the effectiveness of radiation therapy.
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