Exposure of L1210 cells to DNA-intercalating antitumor drugs Novantrone (mitoxantrone; 20 ng/ml), doxorubicin (0.5 µg/ml), ellipticine (5 µg/ml), or the doxorubicin analogue AD198 (0.4 µg/ml), for 1 h, results in inhibition of cell proliferation, arrest of cells in the G2 phase of the cell cycle, and an increase in the number of cells entering higher DNA ploidy. These effects are significantly reduced when 5 mm concentrations of the methylxanthines caffeine or pentoxifylline are present either simultaneous with, or, in some cases, when added for 1 h immediately following pulse exposure to the drug. Both caffeine and pentoxifylline alone (5 mm) have little effect on cell growth or cell cycle progression. The possible mechanism of cell protection against intercalating drugs provided by caffeine was studied spectrophotometrically by measuring the interaction between Novantrone and the caffeine chromophore and in a model system using permeabilized L1210 cells and measuring the effect of caffeine in reducing binding of the intercalating dye acridine orange to cellular DNA and RNA. The data indicate that the observed protection of cells against intercalating drugs by caffeine or pentoxifylline is most likely a consequence of the direct interaction between the methylxanthines and the planar aromatic molecules of the intercalating drugs: formation of caffeine-drug complexes in solution effectively lowers the concentration of the free drug and thereby reduces its pharmacological activity. The principle of selective entrapment of the intercalator by compounds like caffeine may be considered in designing strategies to modulate the activity of intercalating drugs in vivo, e.g., in lowering drug toxicity when inadvertently applied at too high doses.


This work was supported by U.S.P.H.S. Grants R37 CA 23296 and CA28704, as well as the Carl Inserra Fund.

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