Hepatotoxicity and mechanism of action of haloalkanes: carbon tetrachloride as a toxicological model

Crit Rev Toxicol. 2003;33(2):105-36. doi: 10.1080/713611034.


The use of many halogenated alkanes such as carbon tetrachloride (CCl4), chloroform (CHCl3) or iodoform (CHI3), has been banned or severely restricted because of their distinct toxicity. Yet CCl4 continues to provide an important service today as a model substance to elucidate the mechanisms of action of hepatotoxic effects such as fatty degeneration, fibrosis, hepatocellular death, and carcinogenicity. In a matter of dose,exposure time, presence of potentiating agents, or age of the affected organism, regeneration can take place and lead to full recovery from liver damage. CCl4 is activated by cytochrome (CYP)2E1, CYP2B1 or CYP2B2, and possibly CYP3A, to form the trichloromethyl radical, CCl3*. This radical can bind to cellular molecules (nucleic acid, protein, lipid), impairing crucial cellular processes such as lipid metabolism, with the potential outcome of fatty degeneration (steatosis). Adduct formation between CCl3* and DNA is thought to function as initiator of hepatic cancer. This radical can also react with oxygen to form the trichloromethylperoxy radical CCl3OO*, a highly reactive species. CCl3OO* initiates the chain reaction of lipid peroxidation, which attacks and destroys polyunsaturated fatty acids, in particular those associated with phospholipids. This affects the permeabilities of mitochondrial, endoplasmic reticulum, and plasma membranes, resulting in the loss of cellular calcium sequestration and homeostasis, which can contribute heavily to subsequent cell damage. Among the degradation products of fatty acids are reactive aldehydes, especially 4-hydroxynonenal, which bind easily to functional groups of proteins and inhibit important enzyme activities. CCl4 intoxication also leads to hypomethylation of cellular components; in the case of RNA the outcome is thought to be inhibition of protein synthesis, in the case of phospholipids it plays a role in the inhibition of lipoprotein secretion. None of these processes per se is considered the ultimate cause of CCl4-induced cell death; it is by cooperation that they achieve a fatal outcome, provided the toxicant acts in a high single dose, or over longer periods of time at low doses. At the molecular level CCl4 activates tumor necrosis factor (TNF)alpha, nitric oxide (NO), and transforming growth factors (TGF)-alpha and -beta in the cell, processes that appear to direct the cell primarily toward (self-)destruction or fibrosis. TNFalpha pushes toward apoptosis, whereas the TGFs appear to direct toward fibrosis. Interleukin (IL)-6, although induced by TNFalpha, has a clearly antiapoptotic effect, and IL-10 also counteracts TNFalpha action. Thus, both interleukins have the potential to initiate recovery of the CCl4-damaged hepatocyte. Several of the above-mentioned toxication processes can be specifically interrupted with the use of antioxidants and mitogens, respectively, by restoring cellular methylation, or by preserving calcium sequestration. Chemicals that induce cytochromes that metabolize CCl4, or delay tissue regeneration when co-administered with CCl4 will potentiate its toxicity thoroughly, while appropriate CYP450 inhibitors will alleviate much of the toxicity. Oxygen partial pressure can also direct the course of CCl4 hepatotoxicity. Pressures between 5 and 35 mmHg favor lipid peroxidation, whereas absence of oxygen, as well as a partial pressure above 100 mmHg, both prevent lipid peroxidation entirely. Consequently, the location of CCl4-induced damage mirrors the oxygen gradient across the liver lobule. Mixed halogenated methanes and ethanes, found as so-called disinfection byproducts at low concentration in drinking water, elicit symptoms of toxicity very similar to carbon tetrachloride, including carcinogenicity.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Alkanes / adverse effects
  • Alkanes / metabolism
  • Antioxidants / pharmacology
  • Carbon Tetrachloride / adverse effects*
  • Carbon Tetrachloride / metabolism
  • Carbon Tetrachloride Poisoning / metabolism*
  • Carbon Tetrachloride Poisoning / physiopathology
  • Carbon Tetrachloride Poisoning / prevention & control*
  • Chemical and Drug Induced Liver Injury / metabolism*
  • Chemical and Drug Induced Liver Injury / physiopathology
  • Cytokines / metabolism
  • Drug Synergism
  • Growth Substances / metabolism
  • Halogens / adverse effects
  • Halogens / metabolism
  • Hepatocytes / drug effects
  • Hepatocytes / pathology
  • Homeostasis / drug effects
  • Homeostasis / physiology
  • Humans
  • Lipid Peroxidation / drug effects
  • Lipid Peroxidation / physiology
  • Liver / drug effects
  • Liver / metabolism*
  • Liver / physiopathology*
  • Methylation / drug effects


  • Alkanes
  • Antioxidants
  • Cytokines
  • Growth Substances
  • Halogens
  • Carbon Tetrachloride