Hydroethidine: a fluorescent redox probe for locating hypoxic cells in spheroids and murine tumours

Br J Cancer. 1989 Sep;60(3):332-8. doi: 10.1038/bjc.1989.281.


The fluorescent redox probe hydroethidine was accumulated and metabolised about five times faster in aerobic than in hypoxic mammalian cells. Patterns of fluorescence in Chinese hamster V79 spheroids also indicated that internal hypoxic cells were less able to metabolise the drug; toxicity was observed in cells only when cell fluorescence exceeded about 500 times background. In medium equilibrated with air or nitrogen, cell accumulation of the stain was rapid, and began to plateau after 30 min; loss of ethidium was initially rapid, with a slower component after 30 min, and transfer of the metabolite ethidium between stained and unstained cells was observed after 2 h co-incubation. Sorting cells from irradiated spheroids on the basis of ethidium fluorescence provided good separation of aerobic radiosensitive and hypoxic radioresistant cells, although separation using the perfusion probe, Hoechst 33342, was superior. Similar experiments with the murine SCCVII squamous cell carcinoma suggested that hydroethidine might be a useful indirect stain for locating hypoxic cells in experimental tumours when used in combination with a perfusion probe such as Hoechst 33342.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / metabolism
  • Carcinoma, Squamous Cell / pathology*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cricetinae
  • Cricetulus
  • Fibroblasts / metabolism
  • Fibroblasts / pathology
  • Fluorescent Dyes*
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C3H
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Oxygen / metabolism*
  • Phenanthridines


  • Fluorescent Dyes
  • Phenanthridines
  • hydroethidine
  • Oxygen