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Expert Rev Respir Med. 2018 Aug;12(8):693-708. doi: 10.1080/17476348.2018.1495562. Epub 2018 Jul 17.

Multifaceted activity of N-acetyl-l-cysteine in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

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a Department of Experimental Medicine and Surgery , University of Rome Tor Vergata , Rome , Italy.
b Department of Experimental Medicine, Unit of Pharmacology , University of Campania "Luigi Vanvitelli" , Naples , Italy.


N-acetyl-l-cysteine (NAC), a derivative of the naturally occurring amino acid l-cysteine, is a mucolytic agent that may also act as an antioxidant by providing cysteine intracellularly for increased production of glutathione. It is also used for the treatment of acetaminophen overdose. Areas covered: The recent international recommendations for the treatment of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) report that NAC, because of its mucolytic activity, reduces acute exacerbation of COPD (AECOPD) with a modest improvement in health status. However, NAC is a pleiotropic drug with heterogeneous pharmacologic characteristics that certainly include mucolytic activity, but also has anti-infective properties and specific antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in the airways. Thus, the mechanisms leading to the protective role of this agent against AECOPD need to be adequately addressed. Expert commentary: The protective effect of NAC against AECOPD seems to be related not only to its well-documented mucolytic activity but also to activation of antioxidant pathways, inhibition of pro-oxidant and inflammatory pathways, and modulation of human bronchial tone. Thus, the dogma that NAC acts prevalently as a mucolytic agent is outdated, and the hypothesis that its anti-inflammatory effect is secondary to the antioxidant activity has been rejected.


COPD; N-acetyl-l-cysteine; anti-inflammatory effect; antioxidant effect; exacerbation

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