Adriamycin, amsacrine, and etoposide produce protein-associated DNA breaks in numerous cell types. However, in vitro exposure to Adriamycin (0.1–50.0 µg/ml) resulted in no detectable DNA cleavage in lymphocytes from patients with B-cell chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) or in either B- or T-lymphocytes from normal donors. In contrast, DNA cleavage was observed in T-cells from CLL patients. Exposure to amsacrine or etoposide caused at least 50-fold less DNA cleavage in CLL and normal lymphocytes as compared to L1210 cells. These findings cannot be accounted for by differences in drug uptake.

An attempt was made to explain the relative resistance of human lymphocytes to drug-induced DNA cleavage. DNA topoisomerase II, an intracellular target of tested drugs, was assayed in CLL and normal human blood lymphocytes by immunoblotting. The enzyme was detected neither in unfractionated lymphocytes nor in the enriched B- and T-cells from 28 untreated patients with CLL (Stage 0-IV) and from seven normal donors. Exponentially growing L1210 cells had approximately 7 × 105 enzyme copies per cell, suggesting a 100-fold higher content than that of CLL or normal lymphocytes. There were, however, detectable levels of DNA topoisomerase II in cells obtained from patients with diffuse histiocytic, nodular poorly differentiated and nodular mixed lymphomas, in Burkitt's lymphoma, acute lymphoblastic leukemia and CLL with prolymphocytic transformation. DNA topoisomerase I, a potential target and anticancer chemotherapy, was detectable in CLL and normal lymphocytes, as well as in cells of other malignancies tested.

The above results may offer an explanation for the ineffectiveness of Adriamycin in the treatment of CLL. It could be suggested that low levels of DNA topoisomerase II contribute to drug resistance operating in human malignancies with a large compartment of nonproliferating cells.


Supported by American Cancer Society Grant CH-348A, USPHS Research Grants CA11655, CA39662, CA32055, and CA23296 from the National Cancer Institute, NIH, by a grant from Farmitalia Carlo Erba, and by the Marcia Slater Society for Research in Leukemia.

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