We have used a structure-activity approach to investigate whether the Vinca alkaloids inhibit cell proliferation primarily by means of their effects on mitotic spindle microtubules or by another mechanism or by a combination of mechanisms. Five Vinca alkaloids were used to investigate the relationship in HeLa cells between inhibition of cell proliferation and blockage of mitosis, alteration of spindle organization, and depolymerization of microtubules. Indirect immunofluorescence staining of microtubules and 4,6-diamidino-2-phenylindole staining of chromatin were used to characterize the effects of the drugs on the distributions of cells in stages of the cell cycle and on the organization of microtubules and chromosomes in metaphase spindles. The microtubule polymer was isolated from cells and quantified using a competitive enzyme-linked immunoadsorbent assay for tubulin. We observed a nearly perfect coincidence between the concentration of each Vinca derivative that inhibited cell proliferation and the concentration that caused 50% accumulation of cells at metaphase, despite the fact that the antiproliferative potencies of the drugs varied over a broad concentration range. Inhibition of cell proliferation and blockage of cells at metaphase at the lowest effective concentrations of all Vinca derivatives occurred with little or no microtubule depolymerization or spindle disorganization. With increasing drug concentrations, the organization of microtubules and chromosomes in arrested mitotic spindles deteriorated in a manner that was common to all five congeners. These results indicate that the antiproliferative activity of the Vinca alkaloids at their lowest effective concentrations in HeLa cells is due to inhibition of mitotic spindle function. The results suggest further that the Vinca alkaloids inhibit cell proliferation by altering the dynamics of tubulin addition and loss at the ends of mitotic spindle microtubules rather than by depolymerizing the microtubules. The specific alterations of spindle microtubule dynamics appear to differ among the five Vinca congeners, and such differences may be responsible for differences in the antitumor specificities of the drugs.

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Supported by Grant CH-381 from the American Cancer Society, and a Grant-In-Aid from The Eli Lilly Research Laboratories. Preliminary reports describing portions of this work have appeared elsewhere (Jordan, M. A., Thrower, D., and Wilson, L., J. Cell Biol., 107: 237a, 1988, and J. Cell Biol., 109: 89a, 1989.

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