Evidence & a New Theory on Apoptosis

Evidence against apoptosis as a major mechanism for reproductive cell death following treatment of cell lines with anti-cancer drugs

I. F. Tannock, C. Lee


An increase in apoptotic cells may be observed after treatment with chemotherapy, and many authors have assumed that anti-cancer drugs kill cells by inducing apoptosis. The most relevant endpoint of cell death following treatment of tumour cells is loss of reproductive ability as measured by a colony-forming assay, since cells with limited reproductive potential cannot regenerate a tumour.

We have therefore investigated the relationship between apoptosis and reproductive cell death following in vitro treatment of mammalian cell lines with anti-cancer drugs. Markers of apoptosis (DNA ladders, TUNEL assay) were evaluated at various times after treatment of Chinese Hamster Ovary (CHO) cells, human bladder cancer MGH-U1 cells, and a murine T-lymphocytic cell line (CTLL-2) with several anti-cancer drugs.

These markers were found infrequently, despite the use of doses that cause loss of colony-forming ability, except in CTLL-2 cells. We also transfected and expressed the human pro-apoptotic gene bax and the anti-apoptotic gene bcl-2 in MGH-U1 cells and compared cell survival after drug treatment with that of control cells transfected with the vector alone. Expression of these genes had at most small effects to influence cell survival.

We conclude that apoptotic mechanisms had at most a minor role in leading to reproductive death of MGH-U1 and CHO cells after chemotherapy. When apoptosis is observed following treatment with anti-cancer drugs it may be a secondary event which occurs in lethally-damaged cells, leading to their lysis, rather than a primary event that leads to loss of reproductive integrity.

British Medical Journal p 100-105, Volume 84, Number 1, January 2001

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