A scalable high-content cytotoxicity assay insensitive to changes in mitochondrial metabolic activity

Oncol Res. 2004;14(6):305-14. doi: 10.3727/096504003773994842.


Quantitative assessments of cell proliferation and cytotoxicity are key components of anticancer drug discovery. Advancements in genomics and combinatorial chemistry have increased the demand for cytotoxicity measurements, and almost all assays for cell proliferation that are compatible with high-throughput screening are single-parameter, homogeneous biochemical assays. Furthermore, the most popular methods currently in use are based on measurements of mitochondrial activity and therefore provide only an indirect measure of cell growth. Here we describe a high-content screening (HCS) methodology that permits the direct quantification of cell numbers as well as multiple measurements of drug activity in individual cells without the ambiguities of previously described homogenous metabolism-based assays. Using two human tumor cell lines, we compared our HCS method with a commonly used homogenous colorimetric assay that detects mitochondrial activity and found the colorimetric assay substantially underrepresented the cytotoxic effects of two mechanistically diverse, clinically used, anticancer drugs: a DNA-damaging agent, bleomycin, and a tubulin stabilizer, paclitaxel. Simultaneous evaluation of cell numbers, mitochondrial mass, and nuclear morphology by HCS provided an explanation for the differential toxicity. Furthermore, we expanded the scope of the HCS assay to include tubulin mass measurements in paclitaxel-treated cells as an example for a specific drug target. The data illustrate the utility of HCS as a powerful analysis tool compatible with the demands of high-throughput screening, and adaptable to include fluorescence-based markers of drug activity.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Antineoplastic Agents / pharmacology
  • Antineoplastic Agents / toxicity*
  • Bleomycin / pharmacology
  • Bleomycin / toxicity
  • Cell Death / drug effects
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Cell Nucleus / drug effects
  • Cell Shape / drug effects
  • Formazans
  • Humans
  • Mitochondria / drug effects*
  • Mitochondria / metabolism*
  • Mitochondria / pathology
  • Paclitaxel / pharmacology
  • Paclitaxel / toxicity
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Tetrazolium Salts / pharmacology
  • Thiazoles / pharmacology
  • Toxicity Tests / methods*


  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Formazans
  • Tetrazolium Salts
  • Thiazoles
  • Bleomycin
  • MTT formazan
  • thiazolyl blue
  • Paclitaxel