Human hepatic cell cultures: in vitro and in vivo drug metabolism

Altern Lab Anim. 2003 May-Jun;31(3):257-65. doi: 10.1177/026119290303100307.


Drug metabolism is the major determinant of drug clearance, and the factor most frequently responsible for inter-individual differences in drug pharmacokinetics. The expression of drug metabolising enzymes shows significant interspecies differences, and variability among human individuals (polymorphic or inducible enzymes) makes the accurate prediction of the metabolism of a new compound in humans difficult. Several key issues need to be addressed at the early stages of drug development to improve drug candidate selection: a) how fast the compound will be metabolised; b) what metabolites will be formed (metabolic profile); c) which enzymes are involved and to what extent; and d) whether drug metabolism will be affected directly (drug-drug interactions) or indirectly (enzyme induction) by the administered compound. Drug metabolism studies are routinely performed in laboratory animals, but they are not sufficiently accurate to predict the metabolic profiles of drugs in humans. Many of these issues can now be addressed by the use of relevant human in vitro models, which speed up the selection of new candidate drugs. Human hepatocytes are the closest in vitro model to the human liver, and they are the only model which can produce a metabolic profile of a drug which is very similar to that found in vivo. However, the use of human hepatocytes is restricted, because limited access to suitable tissue samples prevents their use in high throughput screening systems. The pharmaceutical industry has made great efforts to develop fast and reliable in vitro models to overcome these drawbacks. Comparative studies on liver microsomes and cells from animal species, including humans, are very useful for demonstrating species differences in the metabolic profile of given drug candidates, and are of great value in the judicious and justifiable selection of animal species for later pharmacokinetic and toxicological studies. Cytochrome P450 (CYP)-engineered cells (or microsomes from CYP-engineered cells, for example, Supersomes) have made the identification of the CYPs involved in the metabolism of a drug candidate more straightforward and much easier. However, the screening of compounds acting as potential CYP inducers can only be conducted in cellular systems fully capable of transcribing and translating CYP genes.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Animal Use Alternatives / methods*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System / metabolism
  • Humans
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • Inactivation, Metabolic / physiology
  • Liver / cytology
  • Liver / metabolism*
  • Models, Biological*
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations / metabolism*
  • Pharmacokinetics*


  • Pharmaceutical Preparations
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System