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Drug Metab Rev. 1991;23(3-4):253-309.

Metabolism of azo dyes: implication for detoxication and activation.

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  • 1Department of Molecular Pharmacology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Bronx, New York 10461.


Azo dyes are consumed and otherwise utilized in varying quantities in many parts of the world. Such widely used chemicals are of great concern with regard to their potential toxicity and carcinogenic properties. Their metabolism has been studied extensively and is significant for detoxication and metabolic activation. Both oxidative and reductive pathways are involved in these processes. The majority of azo dyes undergo reduction catalyzed by enzymes of the intestinal microorganisms and/or hepatic enzymes including microsomal and soluble enzymes. The selectivity of substrate and enzyme may to a large extent be determined by the oxygen sensitivity of reduction since a normal liver is mainly aerobic in all areas, whereas the microorganisms of the lower bowel exist in an anaerobic environment. However, it should be pointed out that the pO2 of centrilobular cells within the liver is only a fraction that of air, where pO2 = 150 torr. Therefore, an azo dye reduction experiment performed aerobically may not be an accurate predictor of reductive metabolism in all areas of the liver. Many of the azo dyes in common use today have highly charged substituents such as sulfonate. These resist enzymic attack and for the most part are poorly absorbed from the intestinal tract, providing poor access to the liver, the major site of the mixed-function oxidase system. Lipophilic dyes, such as DAB, which are often carcinogenic, readily access oxidative enzymes and are activated by both mixed-function oxidase and conjugating systems. Reduction of the carcinogenic dyes usually leads to loss of carcinogenic activity. By contrast, most of the highly charged water-soluble dyes become mutagenic only after reduction. Even then, most of the fully reduced amines required oxidative metabolic activation. An outstanding example is the potent human bladder carcinogen benzidine, which derives from the reduction of several azo dyes. Many problems regarding mutagenic and carcinogenic activation remain to be solved. At the present time, it is apparent that both oxidative and reductive pathways yield toxic products. Toxicologic assessment of azo dyes must consider all pathways and particularly the oxygen sensitivity of azoreduction. This is critical in the treatment of waste from chemical plants where there is a great need for soil bacteria which catalyze reduction aerobically. Consideration of secondary pathways are also of great concern. For example, azoreduction of carcinogenic dyes such as DAB removes carcinogenic activity although oxidative metabolism of the primary amines yield mutagenic products. Such apparent dilemmas must be dealt with when considering metabolism/toxicity relationships for azo dyes.

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