Tumour hypoxia is well recognised as a major factor contributing to radioresistance. This article examines the role of hypoxia in influencing the treatment outcome following radiotherapy (RT), and reviews the rationale and results of clinical trials that utilise hypoxic sensitizers or cytotoxins in the treatment of head and neck carcinoma. Histologic evidence for tumour hypoxia in human neoplasms was first reported in 1955. Since then, direct measurement by microelectrodes has revealed heterogeneity in intratumoural oxygen concentrations, and low oxygen concentrations are associated with poor local-regional control by RT. These findings coupled with the result of nuclear imaging studies employing radiolabelled imidazoles, provide strong evidence for the existence of tumour hypoxia which influences RT treatment outcome. Hyperbaric oxygen (HBO) trials for head and neck cancer, conducted in the early 1970s, demonstrated that HBO improved local control and survival rates in patients with head and neck cancer receiving radiotherapy (RT). Since the mid-1970s, clinical research in overcoming tumour hypoxia was mainly centred on the use of nitro-imidazoles as hypoxic cell sensitizers. However, the results from several major clinical trials remain inconclusive. Specifically, the Radiation Therapy Oncology Group (RTOG) misonidazole head and neck trial (298 patients) showed no benefit. The Danish misonidazole trial (626 patients) showed no overall benefit, however positive results were observed in a subgroup (304 pharyngeal cancer patients). Although the European Organisation for Research and Teaching of Cancer (EORTC) misonidazole trial with hyperfractionated RT showed no benefit, the Danish nimorazole trial demonstrated an overall benefit in survival as well as local control. The European etanidazole (ETA) trial (374 patients) showed no advantage of adding the drug to RT. The RTOG ETA trial (504 patients) showed no global benefit. However, positive results were observed in a subset of patients with early nodal disease (197 patients). In addition, a recent meta-analysis by Overgaard, utilising pooled results in the literature demonstrated that modification of tumour hypoxia significantly improved local-regional control in head and neck cancers with an odds ratio of 1.23 (95% confidence limits 1.09 to 1.37). Hypoxic cytotoxins, such as tirapazamine, represent a novel approach in overcoming radioresistant hypoxic cells. Tirapazamine is a bioreductive agent which, by undergoing one electron reduction in hypoxic conditions, forms cytotoxic free radicals that produce DNA strand breaks causing cell death. In vitro and in vivo laboratory studies demonstrate that tirapazamine is 40 to 150 times more toxic to cells under hypoxic conditions as compared to oxygenated conditions and that tirapazamine is superior to ETA in enhancing fractionated irradiation in mouse SCCVII and other tumour types with an enhancement ratio of 1.5 to 3.0. Phase I studies demonstrated that therapeutic doses of tirapazamine can be given safely. A multi-institutional phase II trial using tirapazamine with concurrent RT for head and neck cancer is now in progress.

Lee, Moini, Giuliano, Westra, , , , , (1996). Hypoxic sensitizer and cytotoxin for head and neck cancer. Annals of the Academy of Medicine, Singapore, 1996 May;25(3):397-404. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8876907