One-electron quinone reduction and two-electron carbonyl reduction convert the anticancer anthracycline doxorubicin to reactive oxygen species (ROS) or a secondary alcohol metabolite that contributes to inducing a severe form of cardiotoxicity. The closely related analogue epirubicin induces less cardiotoxicity, but the determinants of its different behavior have not been elucidated. We developed a translational model of the human heart and characterized whether epirubicin exhibited a defective conversion to ROS and secondary alcohol metabolites. Small myocardial samples from cardiac surgery patients were reconstituted in plasma that contained clinically relevant concentrations of doxorubicin or epirubicin. In this model only doxorubicin formed ROS, as detected by fluorescent probes or aconitase inactivation. Experiments with cell-free systems and confocal laser scanning microscopy studies of H9c2 cardiomyocytes suggested that epirubicin could not form ROS because of its protonation-dependent sequestration in cytoplasmic acidic organelles and the consequent limited localization to mitochondrial one-electron quinone reductases. Accordingly, blocking the protonation-sequestration mechanism with the vacuolar H+-ATPase inhibitor bafilomycin A1 relocalized epirubicin to mitochondria and increased its conversion to ROS in human myocardial samples. Epirubicin also formed ∼60% less alcohol metabolites than doxorubicin, but this was caused primarily by its higher K m and lower Vmax values for two-electron carbonyl reduction by aldo/keto-reductases of human cardiac cytosol. Thus, vesicular sequestration and impaired efficiency of electron addition have separate roles in determining a defective bioactivation of epirubicin to ROS or secondary alcohol metabolites in the human heart. These results uncover the molecular determinants of the reduced cardiotoxicity of epirubicin and serve mechanism-based guidelines to improving antitumor therapies.
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