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Environ Health Perspect. 1991 Feb; 91: 17–32.
PMCID: PMC1519349
Research Article

Cellular and molecular toxicity of lead in bone.


To fully understand the significance of bone as a target tissue of lead toxicity, as well as a reservoir of systemic lead, it is necessary to define the effects of lead on the cellular components of bone. Skeletal development and the regulation of skeletal mass are ultimately determined by the four different types of cells: osteoblasts, lining cells, osteoclasts, and osteocytes. These cells, which line and penetrate the mineralized matrix, are responsible for matrix formation, mineralization, and bone resorption, under the control of both systemic and local factors. Systemic components of regulation include parathyroid hormone, 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3, and calcitonin: local regulators include numerous cytokines and growth factors. Lead intoxication directly and indirectly alters many aspects of bone cell function. First, lead may indirectly alter bone cell function through changes in the circulating levels of those hormones, particularly 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3, which modulate bone cell function. These hormonal changes have been well established in clinical studies, although the functional significance remains to be established. Second, lead may directly alter bone cell function by perturbing the ability of bone cells to respond to hormonal regulation. For example, the 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3-stimulated synthesis of osteocalcin, a calcium-binding protein synthesized by osteoblastic bone cells, is inhibited by low levels of lead. Impaired osteocalcin production may inhibit new bone formation, as well as the functional coupling of osteoblasts and osteoclasts. Third, lead may impair the ability of cells to synthesize or secrete other components of the bone matrix, such as collagen or bone sialoproteins (osteopontin). Finally, lead may directly effect or substitute for calcium in the active sites of the calcium messenger system, resulting in loss of physiological regulation. The effects of lead on the recruitment and differentiation of bone cells remains to be established. Compartmental analysis indicates that the kinetic distribution and behavior of intracellular lead in osteoblasts and osteoclasts is similar to several other cell types. Many of the toxic effects of lead on bone cell function may be produced by perturbation of the calcium and cAMP messenger systems in these cells.

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