Mechanism of action of hydroxyurea

Semin Oncol. 1992 Jun;19(3 Suppl 9):1-10.


Hydroxyurea is well absorbed after oral administration, converted to a free radical nitroxide in vivo, and transported by diffusion into cells where it quenches the tyrosyl free radical at the active site of the M2 protein subunit of ribonucleotide reductase, inactivating the enzyme. The entire replitase complex, including ribonucleotide reductase, is inactivated and DNA synthesis is selectively inhibited, producing cell death in S phase and synchronization of the fraction of cells that survive. Repair of DNA damaged by chemicals or irradiation is also inhibited by hydroxyurea, offering potential synergy between hydroxyurea and radiation or alkylating agents. Hydroxyurea renders cells sensitive to bleomycin because the quenched tyrosyl free radical no longer stabilizes the adjacent iron center, making it more susceptible to the chelating properties of bleomycin, which then produces active oxygen. Synergy has also been observed between hydroxyurea and a number of other chemotherapeutic agents, including cytarabine and etoposide. Recently, two new effects of hydroxyurea have been observed: hydroxyurea increases the level of fetal hemoglobin, leading to a reduction in the incidence of vasoocclusive crises in sickle cell anemia, and hydroxyurea selectively reduces the level of episomal DNA and thus potentially may reduce drug resistance associated with duplicated genes retained as episomes. Further exploration of the efficacy of hydroxyurea in combination with other therapeutic agents is warranted.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • DNA / biosynthesis
  • DNA Repair / drug effects
  • Drug Synergism
  • Humans
  • Hydroxyurea / pharmacology*


  • DNA
  • Hydroxyurea