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Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 1991 Nov;111(2):242-54.

Acetaminophen-induced cytotoxicity in cultured mouse hepatocytes: correlation of nuclear Ca2+ accumulation and early DNA fragmentation with cell death.

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Toxicology Program, College of Pharmacy, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque 87131-1066.


Hepatotoxic doses of acetaminophen cause widespread alkylation of liver and early loss of cytosolic Ca2+ regulation. Although the precise location and target of lethal alkylation are not known, Ca2+ accumulation is viewed as a possible link between cell alkylation and cell death. We have recently shown that Ca2+ accumulates in the nucleus and that DNA fragments in vivo before the development of acetaminophen-induced necrosis in mice. The present study examined cultured hepatocytes for nuclear damage and its association with cell death in vitro. Positive results would argue for two key points. (1) Nonparenchymal cell damage does not explain DNA fragmentation induced by acetaminophen in vivo. (2) A chemical that causes necrosis can produce DNA damage considered characteristic of apoptosis. Hepatocytes from NIH Swiss mice were isolated by collagenase perfusion, cultured in Williams' E medium for 24 hr, and exposed to acetaminophen. Cytotoxicity was assessed by lactate dehydrogenase leakage and release of [3H]adenine from a prelabeled nucleotide pool. Genomic DNA fragmentation was assessed quantitatively by colorimetric analysis and qualitatively by agarose gel electrophoresis. Acetaminophen caused DNA damage from 1-4 hr onward and produced significant release of lactate dehydrogenase and [3H]adenine nucleotides at later times. Agarose gel electrophoresis revealed a "ladder" of DNA fragments characteristic of Ca(2+)-mediated endonuclease activation. Cytotoxicity correlated with nuclear Ca2+ accumulation (r greater than 0.895, p less than 0.05) and with percentage DNA fragmentation (r greater than 0.835, p less than 0.05). Nuclear changes in vitro generally reproduced those observed in vivo. Collectively, these findings demonstrate that nuclear Ca2+ accumulation and DNA fragmentation appear as early events that correlate directly with later cytotoxicity. These changes may contribute to acetaminophen-induced injury leading to cell death in vitro and necrosis in vivo.

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