The oxygen status of skin is a controversial topic. Skin is radiosensitive, suggesting it is well-oxygenated. However, it can be further sensitized with nitroimidazole drugs, implying that it is partially hypoxic. Skin oxygen levels are difficult to measure with either electrodes or the hypoxia-monitoring agent (3)H-misonidazole. For the latter, binding has previously been reported to be high in murine skin, but this could be attributed to either non-oxygen-dependent variations in nitroreductase activity, drug metabolism, and/or actual oxygen gradients. We obtained tumor and skin from patients given EF5, a 2-nitroimidazole tissue hypoxia monitor. We performed immunohistochemical studies using highly specific monoclonal antibodies for the hypoxia-dependent production of EF5 tissue adducts. Some tissue sections were counterstained using either Ki67 for proliferation or CD31 for vessels. We found that the human dermis is well-oxygenated, the epidermis is modestly hypoxic and portions of some sebaceous glands and hair follicles are moderately to severely hypoxic. Normal and irradiated skin had similar oxygenation patterns. Control studies demonstrated that these observations are not due to tissue variations in nitroreductase activity. The importance of the highly heterogeneous distribution of oxygen in skin requires further study, but recent investigations suggest that skin hypoxia may have important clinical ramifications including mediating cellular transformation.
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