Since human papillomavirus (HPV) infection is strongly associated with cervical neoplasia and tumor hypoxia has prognostic significance in human cervical carcinomas, we examined the relationship between hypoxia and apoptosis in human cervical epithelial cells expressing high-risk HPV type 16 oncoproteins. In vitro, hypoxia stimulated both p53 induction and apoptosis in primary cervical epithelial cells infected with the HPV E6 and E7 genes but not in cervical fibroblasts infected with E6 and E7. Furthermore, cell lines derived from HPV-associated human cervical squamous cell carcinomas were substantially less sensitive to apoptosis induced by hypoxia, indicating that these cell lines have acquired additional genetic alterations that reduced their apoptotic sensitivity. Although the process of long-term cell culturing resulted in selection for subpopulations of HPV oncoprotein-expressing cervical epithelial cells with diminished apoptotic potential, the exposure of cells to hypoxia greatly accelerated the selection process. These results provide evidence for the role of hypoxia-mediated selection of cells with diminished apoptotic potential in the progression of human tumors and can in part explain why cervical tumors that possess low pO2 values are more aggressive.


Supported by NIH Grants CA RO1CA64489 and RO1CA50995, American Cancer Society Junior Faculty Research Award, the Naomi Vandenberg Research Fund, Howard Hughes Junior Faculty Research Award (A. J. G.), the American Society for Therapeutic Radiology and Oncology Education and Development Fund (C. Y. K.), the Henry S. Kaplan Fellowship Fund from Stanford University School of Medicine Department of Radiation Oncology (C. Y. K.), and the Fannie and John Hertz Foundation (T. G. G.).

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