Importance of hypoxia in the biology and treatment of brain tumors
The resistance of gliomas to treatment with radiation and antineoplastic drugs may result in part from the effects of the extensive, severe hypoxia that is present in these tumors. It is clear that brain tumors contain extensive regions in which the tumor cells are subjected to unphysiological levels of hypoxia. Hypoxic cells are resistant to radiation. Hypoxia and the perfusion deficits and metabolic changes that accompany hypoxia in vivo also produce resistance to many commonly used anticancer drugs. The resistance of cells that are hypoxic at the time of therapy may influence the efficacy of the treatment of these tumors with radiation, chemotherapy, and combined modality regimens. Moreover, it is becoming increasingly evident from laboratory studies that exposure of cells to adverse microenvironments produces transient changes in gene expression, induces mutations, and selects for cells with altered genotypes, thus driving the evolution of the cell population toward increasing malignancy and increasingly aggressive phenotypes. Hypoxia may therefore be involved in the evolution of cells in low-grade malignancies to the resistant, aggressive phenotype characteristic of glioblastomas. During the past 50 years, many attempts have been made to circumvent the therapeutic resistance induced by hypoxia, by improving tumor oxygenation, by using oxygen-mimetic radiosensitizers, by adjuvant therapy with drugs that are preferentially toxic to hypoxic cells, by using hyperthermia, or by devising radiation sources and regimens that are less affected by hypoxia. Past clinical trials have provided tantalizing suggestions that the outcome of therapy can be improved by many of these approaches, but none has yet produced a significant, reproducible improvement in the therapeutic ratio, which would be needed for any of these approaches to become the standard therapy for these diseases. Several ongoing clinical trials are addressing other, hopefully better regimens; it will be interesting to see the results of these studies.