Comparison between the comet assay and pimonidazole binding for measuring tumour hypoxia

Br J Cancer. 2000 Dec;83(11):1525-31. doi: 10.1054/bjoc.2000.1489.


Pimonidazole is finding increasing use in histochemical analyses of hypoxia in tumours. Whether it can identify every hypoxic cell in a tumour, and whether the usual subjective criteria used to define 'positive' cells are optimal, are less certain. Therefore, our aim was to develop an objective flow cytometry procedure for quantifying pimonidazole binding in tumours, and to validate this method by using a more direct indicator of radiobiologic hypoxia, the comet assay. SCCVII tumours in C3H mice were analysed for pimonidazole binding using flow cytometry and an iterative curve-fitting procedure, and the results were compared to the comet assay for the same cell suspensions. On average, cells defined as anoxic by flow analysis (n = 43 tumours) bound 10.8 +/- 0.95 times more antibody than aerobic cells. In samples containing known mixtures of aerobic and anoxic cells, hypoxic fractions as low as 0.5% could easily be detected. To assess the flow cytometry assay under a wider range of tumour oxygen contents, mice were injected with hydralazine to reduce tumour blood flow, or allowed to breathe various gas mixtures during the 90 min exposure to pimonidazole. Hypoxic fraction estimated by the pimonidazole binding method agreed well with the hypoxic fraction measured using the comet assay in SCCVII tumours (r2 = 0.87, slope = 0.98), with similar results in human U87 glioma cells and SiHa cervical carcinoma xenografts. We therefore conclude that this objective analysis of pimonidazole labelling by flow cytometry gives a convenient and accurate estimate of radiobiological hypoxia. Preliminary analyses of biopsies from 3 patients given 0.5 g m-2 pimonidazole also suggest the suitability of this approach for human tumours.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antibodies, Monoclonal
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / metabolism*
  • Cell Hypoxia*
  • Comet Assay*
  • Cricetinae
  • Cricetulus
  • DNA, Neoplasm / analysis
  • Female
  • Flow Cytometry
  • Fluorescein-5-isothiocyanate
  • Humans
  • Immunoconjugates
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C3H
  • Mice, Inbred NOD
  • Mice, SCID
  • Nitroimidazoles / metabolism*
  • Radiation-Sensitizing Agents / metabolism*
  • Uterine Cervical Neoplasms / metabolism*
  • Xenograft Model Antitumor Assays


  • Antibodies, Monoclonal
  • DNA, Neoplasm
  • Immunoconjugates
  • Nitroimidazoles
  • Radiation-Sensitizing Agents
  • pimonidazole
  • Fluorescein-5-isothiocyanate