Mechanism of protection by metallothionein against acetaminophen hepatotoxicity

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date



Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology








Acetaminophen; Covalent binding; Hepatotoxicity; Liver failure; Metallothionein; Oxidant stress


Acetaminophen (APAP) overdose is the most frequent cause of drug-induced liver failure in the US. Metallothionein (MT) expression attenuates APAP-induced liver injury. However, the mechanism of this protection remains incompletely understood. To address this issue, C57BL/6 mice were treated with 100 μmol/kg ZnCl2 for 3 days to induce MT. Twenty-four hours after the last dose of zinc, the animals received 300 mg/kg APAP. Liver injury (plasma ALT activities, area of necrosis), DNA fragmentation, peroxynitrite formation (nitrotyrosine staining), MT expression, hepatic glutathione (GSH), and glutathione disulfide (GSSG) levels were determined after 6 h. APAP alone caused severe liver injury with oxidant stress (increased GSSG levels), peroxynitrite formation, and DNA fragmentation, all of which were attenuated by zinc-induced MT expression. In contrast, MT knockout mice were not protected by zinc. Hydrogen peroxide-induced cell injury in primary hepatocytes was dependent only on the intracellular GSH levels but not on MT expression. Thus, the protective effect of MT in vivo was not due to the direct scavenging of reactive oxygen species. Zinc treatment had no effect on the early GSH depletion kinetics after APAP administration, which is an indicator of the metabolic activation of APAP to its reactive metabolite N-acetyl-p-benzoquinone imine (NAPQI). However, MT was able to effectively trap NAPQI by covalent binding. We conclude that MT scavenges some of the excess NAPQI after GSH depletion and prevents covalent binding to cellular proteins, which is the trigger for the propagation of the cell injury mechanisms through mitochondrial dysfunction and nuclear DNA damage. © 2009 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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