PloS one

Targeting the tumour vasculature: exploitation of low oxygenation and sensitivity to NOS inhibition by treatment with a hypoxic cytotoxin.

PMID 24204680


Many cancer research efforts focus on exploiting genetic-level features that may be targeted for therapy. Tissue-level features of the tumour microenvironment also represent useful therapeutic targets. Here we investigate the presence of low oxygen tension and sensitivity to NOS inhibition of tumour vasculature as potential tumour-specific features that may be targeted by hypoxic cytotoxins, a class of therapeutics currently under investigation. We have previously demonstrated that tirapazamine (TPZ) mediates central vascular dysfunction in tumours. TPZ is a hypoxic cytotoxin that is also a competitive inhibitor of NOS. Here we further investigated the vascular-targeting activity of TPZ by combining it with NOS inhibitor L-NNA, or with low oxygen content gas breathing. Tumours were analyzed via multiplex immunohistochemical staining that revealed irreversible loss of perfusion and enhanced tumour cell death when TPZ was combined with either low oxygen or a NOS inhibitor. Tumour growth rate was reduced by TPZ + NOS inhibition, and tumours previously resistant to TPZ-mediated vascular dysfunction were sensitized by low oxygen breathing. Additional mapping analysis suggests that tumours with reduced vascular-associated stroma may have greater sensitivity to these effects. These results indicate that poorly oxygenated tumour vessels, also being abnormally organized and with inadequate smooth muscle, may be successfully targeted for significant anti-cancer effects by inhibition of NOS and hypoxia-activated prodrug toxicity. This strategy illustrates a novel use of hypoxia-activated cytotoxic prodrugs as vascular targeting agents, and also represents a novel mechanism for targeting tumour vessels.