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Cancer Res. 1999 Dec 1;59(23):5863-70.

The hypoxic cell: a target for selective cancer therapy--eighteenth Bruce F. Cain Memorial Award lecture.

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  • Department of Radiation Oncology, Stanford University School of Medicine, California 94305-5468, USA. mbrown@leland.stanford.edu


It has been appreciated for more than 50 years that very low levels of oxygenation, or hypoxia, both protect cells from killing by X-irradiation and are present in solid tumors but not in normal tissues. Until recently, however, there has been no definitive proof that hypoxia in human tumors contributes to radiotherapy treatment failure. We now know that hypoxia in solid tumors is not only a major problem for radiation therapy but also leads to resistance to most anticancer drugs and, importantly, appears to accelerate malignant progression and increase metastasis. To date, efforts to overcome the problem of hypoxia have had only limited success. However, the recent development of new drugs that are nontoxic until they are activated in the hypoxic cell opens a new era. The first of these new drugs to be tested clinically, tirapazamine, a drug that is highly toxic to hypoxic but not aerobic cells, has already demonstrated efficacy in selective potentiation of cisplatin in randomized Phase III trials with non-small cell lung cancer. The unique presence of hypoxic cells in human tumors provides an important target for selective cancer therapy.

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