, Volume 22, Issue 3, pp 265-280

Nitroimidazoles and imaging hypoxia

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Decreased tissue oxygen tension is a component of many diseases. Although hypoxia can be secondary to a low inspired P02 or a variety of lung disorders, the commonest cause is ischemia due to an oxygen demand greater than the local oxygen supply. In tumors, low tissue p02 is often observed, most often due to a blood supply inadequate to meet the tumor's demands. Hypoxic tumor tissue is associated with increased resistance to therapy. In the heart tissue hypoxia is often observed in persistent low-flow states, such as hibernating myocardium. In patients with stroke, hypoxia has been associated with the penumbral region, where an intervention could preserve function. Despite the potential importance of oxygen levels in tissue, difficulty in making this measurement in vivo has limited its role in clinical decision making. A class of compounds known to undergo different intracellular metabolism depending on the availability of oxygen in tissue, the nitroimidazoles, have been advocated for imaging hypoxic tissue. When a nitroimidazole enters a viable cell the molecule undergoes a single electron reduction, to form a potentially reactive species. In the presence of normal oxygen levels the molecule is immediately reoxidized. This futile shuttling takes place for some time, before the molecule diffuses out of the cell. In hypoxic tissue the low oxygen concentration is not able to effectively compete to reoxidize the molecule and further reduction appears to take place, culminating in the association of the reduced nitroimidazole with various intracellular components. The association is not irreversible, since these agents clear from hypoxic tissue over time. Initial development of nitroimidazoles for in vivo imaging used radiohalogenated derivatives of misonidazole, such as fluoromisonidazole, some of which have recently been employed in patients. Two major problems with fluoromisonidazole are its relatively low concentration within the lesion and the need to wait several hours to permit clearance of the agent from the normoxic background tissue (contrast between lesion and background typically <2:1 at about 90 min after injection). Even with high-resolution positron emission tomographic imaging, this combination of circumstances makes successful evaluation of hypoxic lesions a challenge. Single-photon agents, with their longer halflives and comparable biological properties, offer a greater opportunity for successful imaging. In 1992 technetium-99m labeled nitroimidazoles were described that seem to have at least comparable in vivo characteristics. Laboratory studies have demonstrated preferential binding of these agents to hypoxic tissue in the myocardium, in the brain, and in tumors. These investigations indicate that imaging can provide direct evidence of tissue with low oxygen levels that is viable. In the experimental setting this information is useful to plan a more aggressive approach to treating tumors, or revascularize a heart suffering ischemic dysfunction. Even from this early vantage point the utility of measuring tissue oxygen levels with external imaging suggests that hypoxia imaging could play a major role in clinical decision making.