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Radiother Oncol. 2004 Jan;70(1):91-7.

Differentiation-associated staining with anti-pimonidazole antibodies in head and neck tumors.

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Division of Experimental Therapy, Netherlands Cancer Institute, Plesmanlaan 121, 1066 CX Amsterdam, The Netherlands.



Hypoxia is a strong negative prognostic factor for all three major treatment modalities for cancer. The bioreductive drug pimonidazole is currently under clinical investigation as a hypoxia marker. In human head and neck tumors, in addition to staining patterns typical of chronic hypoxia, staining was seen specifically around areas of keratinization, raising the question of whether this is hypoxia-related. This could influence quantitative hypoxia estimates using this marker. We investigated here whether the differentiation-related staining was caused by locally high reductive enzyme levels.


The nitrotetrazolium compound NBT was used, which is reduced by nitroreductases to yield a blue color. The assay was validated on three genetically related MDA231 human mammary carcinoma cell lines: wildtype, overexpressing DT-diaphorase (DT1), and overexpressing cytochrome p450 reductase (R4). Increased NBT staining under normoxia was indeed seen for both R4 and DT1 lines. Pimonidazole staining under normoxia was only seen in the R4 line.


Frozen tumor sections from 20 patients with head and neck cancer injected with pimonidazole were incubated with NBT. Parallel sections were stained for pimonidazole. Staining patterns were then compared on matched images, and areas of keratinization scored for the presence or absence of pimonidazole and NBT. Pimonidazole staining was seen in 56% of keratinized areas, and of these, 78% showed increased NBT staining, indicating that high reductase levels are not a necessary requirement for differentiation-associated pimonidazole staining. In a second series, frozen sections of tumors from 15 patients not receiving pimonidazole were incubated with NBT and compared with staining after incubation with pimonidazole under both oxic and hypoxic conditions. Pimonidazole staining of some keratinizing areas under oxic conditions was seen. Of these areas, only a proportion (70%) showed increased NBT staining, confirming the lack of correspondence between keratin-associated pimonidazole staining and reductase levels.


Hypoxia-independent pimonidazole staining can occur in more differentiated head and neck tumors, necessitating caution in hypoxia quantification. These data argue against a causative role for locally high reductase levels in differentiation-associated staining. DT-diaphorase appears to play no role in pimonidazole reduction.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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