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Topotecan, a derivative of camptothecin, is an important anticancer drug for the treatment of various human cancers in the clinic. While the principal mechanism of tumor cell killing by topotecan is due to its interactions with topoisomerase I, other mechanisms, e.g., oxidative stress induced by reactive free radicals, have also been proposed. However, very little is known about how topotecan induces free radical-dependent oxidative stress in tumor cells. In this report we describe the formation of a topotecan radical, catalyzed by a peroxidase-hydrogen peroxide system. While this topotecan radical did not undergo oxidation-reduction with molecular O2, it rapidly reacted with reduced glutathione and cysteine, regenerating topotecan and forming the corresponding glutathiyl and cysteinyl radicals. Ascorbic acid, which produces hydrogen peroxide in tumor cells, significantly increased topotecan cytotoxicity in MCF-7 tumor cells. The presence of ascorbic acid also increased both topoisomerase I-dependent topotecan-induced DNA cleavage complex formation and topotecan-induced DNA double-strand breaks, suggesting that ascorbic acid participated in enhancing DNA damage induced by topotecan and that the enhanced DNA damage is responsible for the synergistic interactions of topotecan and ascorbic acid. Cell death by topotecan and the combination of topotecan and ascorbic acid was predominantly due to necrosis of MCF-7 breast tumor cells.One-electron oxidation of topotecan generates topotecan phenoxy radical.Topotecan radical rapidly reacts with glutathione to generate glutathiyl radical.Ascorbic acid (AA) significantly enhances topotecan cytotoxicity in MCF-7 tumor cells.Ascorbic acid significantly increased topoisomerase I-dependent DNA damage.Synergistic cytotoxicity of topotecan and AA may result from increased DNA damage.