Human hepatocytes in primary culture: the choice to investigate drug metabolism in man

Curr Drug Metab. 2004 Oct;5(5):443-62. doi: 10.2174/1389200043335414.


Different types of hepatic tissue, including whole or split livers from organ donors or waste liver from therapeutic liver resections, are used to prepare human hepatocyte cultures. Characteristics of liver samples from different origins (gender, age, healthy/pathological status, xenobiotic treatment) as sources of human hepatocytes are key factors which notably determine viability and functionality of hepatocytes. The characterisation of the CYP system can be assessed in terms of activity (using specific substrates/inhibitors), protein (antibody analysis) and molecular biology-based mRNA amplification techniques (PCR technology and DNA microarrays). It could reasonably be considered that human hepatocytes reflect the heterogeneity of CYP expression in human liver and is a suitable model for drug metabolism studies. Several key issues need to be addressed at the early stages of drug development to better select drug candidates (metabolic profile and rate, identification of CYPs involved, drug-drug interactions due to enzyme induction/inhibition). The metabolic stability and metabolite profile of new chemicals can be easily investigated by incubating the drugs with fully competent metabolic models like hepatocyte suspensions or 24 h-cultured hepatocytes. CYP inhibitory effects are usually screened in recombinant CYP enzymes or microsomes, however, the actual concentration of substrate and inhibitor available to the CYP enzyme depends on processes missing in subcellular models (transport mechanisms, cytosolic enzymes, binding to intracellular proteins). Since intact cells more closely reflect the environment to which drugs are exposed in the liver, cultured hepatocytes constitute a more predictive model for drug-drug interactions. Screening of CYP inducers cannot be done in microsomes as it requires a cellular system fully capable of expressing CYP genes. Primary hepatocytes are still the unique in vitro model for global examination of inductive potential of drugs (monitored as increases in mRNA content or activity).

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme Inhibitors
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System / metabolism
  • Hepatocytes / enzymology
  • Hepatocytes / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Liver / cytology
  • Liver / metabolism
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations / metabolism*


  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme Inhibitors
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System