Drugs based on nitroarene, aromatic N-oxide or quinone structures are frequently reduced by cellular reductases to toxic products. Reduction often involves free radicals as intermediates which react rapidly with oxygen to form superoxide radicals, inhibiting drug reduction. The elevation of cellular oxidative stress accompanying oxygen inhibition of reduction is generally less damaging than drug reduction to toxic products, so the drugs offer selective toxicity to hypoxic cells. Since such cells are resistant to radiotherapy, these bioreductive drugs offer potential in tumour therapy. The basis for the selectivity of action entails kinetic competition involving the contesting reaction pathways. The reduction potential of the drug, radical pKa and nature of radical/radical decay kinetics all influence drug activity and selectivity, including the range of oxygen tensions over which the drug offers selective toxicity. These properties may be quantified using generation of radicals by pulse radiolysis, presenting a physicochemical basis for rational drug design.

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