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Mice, men, mustards and methylated xanthines: the potential role of caffeine and related drugs in the sensitization of human tumours to alkylating agents


The relationships between DNA damage from UV radiation, alkylating drugs and the methylated xanthines (MX) have been studied in normal and malignant rodent and human cells. A comparison of the level of DNA excision repair (repair replication and unscheduled DNA synthesis) confirms that some forms of alkylating-agent damage (probably mono-filar DNA adducts) are less completely removed by both normal and malignant rodent cells than by their human counterparts, rendering rodent cells more susceptible to the toxic potential of unexcised lesions. The toxicity of alkylating agents can be increased by the presence of several MXs during the period of DNA replication which follows infliction of the damage. Human cells appear capable of excising more DNA damage, rendering them somewhat less susceptible to enhancement of cytotoxicity by MX. This resistance of human cells is only quantitative, however, since 2 human cancer cell lines (HeLa and HT-29) could be sensitized to a variety of alkylating agents by appropriate concentrations of MX. Trimethylxanthine (caffeine) and the 2 clinically useful dimethylxanthines (theophylline and theobromine) appeared equally effective in sensitizing cells. The sensitization was dependent upon a slightly cytotoxic concentration of the MX and a suitably prolonged period of post-damage MX exposure. Of these 3 classic MXs, only theobromine might be clinically useful. The levels required for alkylating-agent sensitization exceed the clinically tolerable level of theophylline, and probably approach the tolerance of man to caffeine. The most likely mechanism by which MX sensitization is achieved is reversal of the inhibition of DNA replicon initiation which follows the infliction of significant DNA damage. Through the selection of suitable clinically useful alkylating agents (those dependent on active cellular transport for cell penetration) and appropriate MX scheduling, an enhanced therapeutic ratio might be achieved, potentially increasing the clinical usefulness of these alkylating agents. MX would thus form a useful class of agents adjuvant to conventional anti-cancer drugs.

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