Tumor hypoxia and cancer therapy

Tumor hypoxia in cancer therapy

Methods Enzymol. 2007;435:297-321.

Tumor hypoxia in cancer therapy.

Martin Brown


Radiation Oncology – Radiation and Cancer Biology

  • 1Division of Radiation and Cancer Biology, Department of Radiation Oncology, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford, California, USA.


Human solid tumors are invariably less well-oxygenated than the normal tissues from which they arose. This so-called tumor hypoxia leads to resistance to radiotherapy and anticancer chemotherapy as well as predisposing for increased tumor metastases. In this chapter, we examine the resistance of tumors to radiotherapy produced by hypoxia and, in particular, address the question of whether this resistance is the result of the physicochemical free radical mechanism that produces resistance to radiation killing of cells in vitro. We conclude that a major part of the resistance, though perhaps not all, is the result of the physicochemical free radical mechanism of the oxygen effect in sensitizing cells to ionizing radiation. However, in modeling studies used to evaluate the effect of fractionated irradiation on tumor response, it is essential to consider the fact that the tumor cells are at a wide range of oxygen concentrations, not just at the extremes of oxygenated and hypoxic. Prolonged hypoxia of the tumor tissue also leads to necrosis, and necrotic regions are also characteristic of solid tumors. These two characteristics–hypoxia and necrosis–represent clear differences between tumors and normal tissues and are potentially exploitable in cancer treatment. We discuss strategies for exploiting these differences. One such strategy is to use drugs that are toxic only under hypoxic conditions. The second strategy is to take advantage of the selective induction under hypoxia of the hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF)-1. Gene therapy strategies based on this strategy are in development. Finally, tumor hypoxia can be exploited using live obligate anaerobes that have been genetically engineered to express enzymes that can activate nontoxic prodrugs into toxic chemotherapeutic agents.