Hypoxic tumor cell radiosensitization: role of the iNOS/NO pathway

Bull Cancer. 2008 Mar;95(3):282-91. doi: 10.1684/bdc.2008.0592.


Hypoxia is a common feature of the tumor microenvironment and a major cause of clinical radioresistance. During the last decades, several strategies to improve tumor oxygenation were developed such as breathing high oxygen content gas under hyperbaric conditions (3 atmosphere) and improving tumor perfusion by nicotinamide, in combination with carbogen breathing and accelerated radiotherapy to counteract tumor repopulation (ARCON). Other strategies to overcome hypoxia induced radioresistance are the use of hypoxic cell radiosensitizers, which mimic oxygen and enhance thereby radiation damage (e.g. the nitroimidazoles) and bioreductive drugs, which undergo intracellular reduction to form active cytotoxic species under low oxygen tension (e.g. mitomycin C and tirapazamine). A meta-analysis of all randomized trials in which some form of hypoxic modification was performed, showed an improved local control and survival, especially in cervix and head-and-neck cancer. Nevertheless, none of the discussed strategies are used in clinical routine because of feasibility and toxicity issues. We developed an alternative strategy that takes advantage of the microenvironment of solid tumors for tumor specific radiosensitization. The inducible isoform of nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) may be induced by bacterial LPS or its derivate lipid A, is expressed by a variety of solid tumors and generates NO at high rates inside tumor cells. This local production of NO results in efficient hypoxic tumor cell radiosensitization, at non-toxic extracellular concentrations of NO. In addition, iNOS is transcriptionally upregulated by hypoxia and proinflammatory cytokines such as interferon-gamma. Hence, we proposed the pro-inflammatory tumor infiltrate as a new target for radiosensitizing strategies and identified two mechanisms: First, tumor associated immune cells (macrophages, T/NK-cells) are a source of mediators that may induce the iNOS/NO pathway inside tumor cells. Second, tumor associated macrophages can produce high levels of NO that may radiosensitize bystander tumor cells. Our ongoing research is focused on combining immunostimulatory and radiosensitizing strategies.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Hypoxia / drug effects
  • Cell Hypoxia / physiology*
  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Enzyme Activation / drug effects
  • Interleukins / biosynthesis
  • Killer Cells, Natural / drug effects
  • Killer Cells, Natural / metabolism
  • Lipid A / pharmacology
  • Macrophages / drug effects
  • Macrophages / metabolism
  • Mice
  • NF-kappa B / antagonists & inhibitors
  • NF-kappa B / physiology
  • Neoplasms* / blood supply
  • Neoplasms* / metabolism
  • Neoplasms* / radiotherapy
  • Nitric Oxide / metabolism
  • Nitric Oxide Synthase Type II / metabolism*
  • Oxygen / metabolism*
  • Partial Pressure
  • Radiation Tolerance / drug effects
  • Radiation Tolerance / physiology*
  • Radiation-Sensitizing Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha / biosynthesis


  • Interleukins
  • Lipid A
  • NF-kappa B
  • Radiation-Sensitizing Agents
  • Tumor Necrosis Factor-alpha
  • Nitric Oxide
  • Nitric Oxide Synthase Type II
  • Oxygen