The lethal effects of bleomycin and its derivative, peplomycin, were determined for HeLa S3 cells grown in multicell spheroids cocultured with human diploid fibroblasts. Both drugs were less effective for cells in spheroids than for cells grown exponentially in monolayers. However, HeLa cells from spheroids exposed to the drugs in single-cell suspension were more sensitive to the drugs than were cells in monolayers. Sequential trypsinization of spheroids after exposure to both drugs showed that the surviving fraction increased sharply with increasing depth of cell layers in the spheroids. The presence of 0.5 mm misonidazole, a hypoxic radiosensitizer, enhanced the lethal effect of peplomycin only for the cells in the deeper layer. These findings suggest that the drug resistance of cells in spheroids was due, at least in part, to the microenvironment of the deeper layers. When spheroids were incubated in fresh medium following exposure to both drugs, the cells recovered from the potentially lethal damage within 1 hr. The extent of the recovery from a fixed drug concentration was higher in cells of the superficial layers than in cells of the deeper layers. It is suggested that the limitation of the lethal effects of bleomycin and peplomycin in solid tumors may be overcome by improving the state of oxygenation of hypoxic cells and by combining either drug with one which inhibits recovery from potentially lethal damage.

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This investigation was supported by Grant-in-Aid for Cancer Research 57010008 from the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, Japan.

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