Rationale for the use of aliphatic N-oxides of cytotoxic anthraquinones as prodrug DNA binding agents: a new class of bioreductive agent

Cancer Metastasis Rev. 1993 Jun;12(2):119-34. doi: 10.1007/BF00689805.


NAD(P)H dependent cytochrome P450's and other haemoproteins under hypoxia, mediate two-electron reduction of a wide range of structurally dissimilar N-oxides to their respective tertiary amines. Metabolic reduction can be utilised, in acute and chronic hypoxia, to convert N-oxides of DNA affinic agents to potent and persistent cytotoxins. In this respect a knowledge of N-oxide bioreduction and the importance of the cationic nature of agents that bind to DNA by intercalation can be combined to rationalise N-oxides as prodrugs of DNA binding agents. The concept is illustrated using the alkylaminoanthraquinones which are a group of cytotoxic agents with DNA binding affinity that is dependent on the cationic nature of these compounds. The actions of the alkylaminoanthraquinones involve drug intercalation into DNA (and double stranded RNA) and inhibition of both DNA and RNA polymerases and topoisomerase Type I and II. A di-N-oxide analogue of mitoxantrone, 1,4-bis([2-(dimethylamino-N-oxide)ethyl]amino)5,8-dihydroxyanthracene -9,10- dione (AQ4N) has been shown to possess no intrinsic binding affinity for DNA and has low toxicity. Yet in the absence of air AQ4N can be reduced in vitro to a DNA affinic agent with up to 1000-fold increase in cytotoxic potency. Importantly the reduction product, AQ4, is stable under oxic conditions. Studies in vivo indicate that antitumour activity of AQ4N is manifest under conditions that promote transient hypoxia and/or diminish the oxic tumour fraction. The advantage of utilising the reductive environment of hypoxic tumours to reduce N-oxides is that, unlike conventional bioreductive agents, the resulting products will remain active even if the hypoxia that led to bioactivation is transient or the active compounds, once formed, diffuse away from the hypoxic tumour regions. Furthermore, the DNA affinic nature of the active compounds should ensure their localisation in tumour tissue.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Anthraquinones / metabolism
  • Anthraquinones / toxicity*
  • Antineoplastic Agents / metabolism
  • Antineoplastic Agents / therapeutic use
  • Antineoplastic Agents / toxicity*
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System / metabolism
  • Cytotoxins / metabolism
  • Cytotoxins / toxicity*
  • DNA / metabolism*
  • Drug Design
  • Humans
  • Neoplasms / drug therapy
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Prodrugs / metabolism
  • Prodrugs / toxicity*


  • Anthraquinones
  • Antineoplastic Agents
  • Cytotoxins
  • Prodrugs
  • AQ4N
  • DNA
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System