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Dig Dis. 2015;33(4):464-71. doi: 10.1159/000374090. Epub 2015 Jul 6.

Acetaminophen: Dose-Dependent Drug Hepatotoxicity and Acute Liver Failure in Patients.

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Department of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Therapeutics, University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, Kans., USA.



Drug-induced liver injury is a rare but serious clinical problem. A number of drugs can cause severe liver injury and acute liver failure at therapeutic doses in a very limited number of patients (<1:10,000). This idiosyncratic drug-induced liver injury, which is currently not predictable in preclinical safety studies, appears to depend on individual susceptibility and the inability to adapt to the cellular stress caused by a particular drug. In striking contrast to idiosyncratic drug-induced liver injury, drugs with dose-dependent hepatotoxicity are mostly detected during preclinical studies and do not reach the market. One notable exception is acetaminophen (APAP, paracetamol), which is a safe drug at therapeutic doses but can cause severe liver injury and acute liver failure after intentional and unintentional overdoses. Key Messages: APAP overdose is responsible for more acute liver failure cases in the USA or UK than all other etiologies combined. Since APAP overdose in the mouse represents a model for the human pathophysiology, substantial progress has been made during the last decade in understanding the mechanisms of cell death, liver injury and recovery. More recently, emerging evidence based on mechanistic biomarker analysis in patients and studies of cell death in human hepatocytes suggests that most of the mechanisms discovered in mice also apply to patients. The rapid development of N-acetylcysteine as an antidote against APAP overdose was based on the early understanding of APAP toxicity in mice. However, despite the efficacy of N-acetylcysteine in patients who present early after APAP overdose, there is a need to develop intervention strategies for late-presenting patients.


The challenges related to APAP toxicity are to better understand the mechanisms of cell death in order to limit liver injury and prevent acute liver failure, and also to develop biomarkers that better predict as early as possible who is at risk for developing acute liver failure with poor outcome.

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