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Br J Cancer. 1996 Jan;73(1):54-60.

Characteristics of cancer cell death after exposure to cytotoxic drugs in vitro.

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Department of Cancer Medicine, University of Sydney, NSW, Australia.


The characteristics of cell death were investigated after exposure of CCRF-CEM.f2 cells to five drugs over a broad concentration range; these were the glucocorticoid dexamethasone (DXM), the mitotic inhibitor vincristine (VIN) and three antimetabolites, methotrexate (MTX), 5'-fluoro-2'-deoxyuridine (FUdR) and 5'-fluorouracil (5-FU). Drug-treated cells were monitored for cell death mechanisms at different times by examining the pattern of DNA degradation, cell morphology and flow cytometric profile, together with effects on cell growth over 72 h. At growth-inhibitory drug concentrations, the first changes were cell cycle perturbations detectable after 4-6 h of drug exposure. The appearance of features characteristic of apoptotic cell death was noted after all drug treatments in the CCRF-CEM.f2 cell line, but the pattern and kinetics varied considerably. VIN induced apoptotic changes by 12 h, while DXM treatment caused apoptosis only after 48 h. Both MTX and FUdR induced morphological changes characteristic of apoptosis at least 24 h before internucleosomal DNA cleavage, which was detectable only after 48 h. In contrast, 5-FU did not cause internucleosomal DNA cleavage by 48 h at any concentration, despite the presence of morphologically apoptotic cells 24 h earlier. These data suggest that disruption of the cell cycle caused by drug treatment may be the common trigger initiating the drug-specific apoptotic sequence of dying cells.

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