The effect of l-phenylalanine mustard (L-PAM) on heterogeneous cell populations containing sensitive and resistant cells was evaluated by flow cytometric analysis of DNA damage. Cell cultures were treated with L-PAM for 1 h, fixed, and stained with anti-DNA monoclonal antibody which detects DNA damage induced by alkylating agents. DNA damage was significantly lower in sensitive A2780 cells cocultured with resistant A549 or A2780/PAM cells than in A2780 cells grown separately. Decrease of DNA damage in sensitive cells did not occur when sensitive and resistant cells were grown in common medium without direct contact. Transfer of drug resistance in cocultures was prevented by phorbol ester which is known to inhibit metabolic cooperation via cell junctions. Treatment of cocultures with buthionine sulfoximine increased DNA damage in resistant cells and prevented decrease of DNA damage in sensitive cells. Glutathione (GSH) content in A2780 cells cocultured with A549 cells was significantly higher than GSH content in A2780 cells grown separately. We conclude that decreased response of sensitive cells in cocultures was induced by contact transfer of GSH from GSH-rich resistant cells to sensitive cells.

Intercellular transfer of drug resistance demonstrated by analysis of DNA damage was confirmed by colony formation assay. Treatment with L-PAM and Adriamycin killed all cells in A2780/MDR and A549 cultures. Coculture of these lines survived combination treatment because transfer of GSH to multidrug-resistant cells from GSH-rich A549 cells induced resistance to L-PAM and Adriamycin in a single cell. The presence of 2% A549 cells increased resistance of A2780/MDR cells to L-PAM. Phorbol ester eliminated resistance of coculture to combination treatment.

Metabolic cooperation between cell subsets with different mechanisms of drug resistance induced resistance to treatment with drugs of different classes (multiclass drug resistance). Inhibition of cell cooperation may improve the response of tumors to combination chemotherapy.

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Supported by National Cancer Institute Grant CA50677.

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