Studies on the mechanism of methotrexate cytotoxicity to human cells
Methotrexate is a folic acid analogue widely used as a chemotherapeutic agent. It is known to be a potent inhibitor of the enzyme dihydrofolate reductase, therefore, perturbing intracellular pools of purine and pyrimidine bases for DNA synthesis, as well as pools of reduced folates used in a variety of metabolic reactions. It has been postulated, and subsequently widely accepted, that methotrexate kills cells by perturbing the intracellular ratio of dUTP:dTTP thereby leading to dUMP misincorporation into DNA. This would initiate an excision repair pathway designed to rid cellular DNA of this aberrant base. However, because of the imbalance of nucleotide pools, dUMP may well be re-incorporated during repair thus initiating a futile cycle of dUMP misincorporation and repair eventually leading to single-strand breaks in the DNA. From the results presented in this thesis, no evidence for dUMP misincorporation could be found in the two human cell lines studied (HeLa and CCRF-HSB2), despite the drug exhibiting dose-dependent cytotoxicity to both cell lines. This was true after a variety of methotrexate treatment times and at two different drug concentrations. Subsequent analysis of the drug treated cells, using the nucleoid sedimentation technique, for evidence of single-strand breaks in DNA yielded some anomalous results. Single-strand breaks, in the form of slower sedimenting nucleoids, were easily detectable after exposure of cells to low doses of methotrexate. However, treatment with higher doses resulted in the creation of faster sedimenting nucleoids. Subsequent analysis using other techniques showed that this faster sedimentation was occurring in the presence of DNA single-strand breaks. Collaborative work involving electron microscopy revealed methotrexate induced gross morphological changes in chromatin structure. Analogies with other unrelated anti-tumour agents interacting with topoisomerase enzymes are discussed.