Cytochrome P450 enzyme levels in HepG2 cells and cryopreserved primary human hepatocytes and their induction in HepG2 cells

Toxicol In Vitro. 2007 Dec;21(8):1581-91. doi: 10.1016/j.tiv.2007.05.014. Epub 2007 Jun 8.


Early in vitro toxicity screening might improve the success rate of new chemical entities in pharmaceutical development. In previous studies, the advantage of cytotoxicity screening with the HepG2 cell line was shown. Cytotoxicity could be identified for 70% of the compounds in these assays as compared with known toxicity in either in vitro assays in primary hepatocytes, in in vivo assays in rats, or in (pre-)clinical development in humans. The low Phase I and II enzyme levels in HepG2 cells might have been responsible for the fact that 30% of the compounds scored negative. Therefore, we performed two follow-up studies in which Cytochrome P450 (CYP) enzymes and Phase II metabolism were examined. In the present study, the transcript levels of CYP1A1, 1A2, 2A6, 2B6, 2C8, 2C9, 2C19, 2D6, 2E1, and 3A4 were measured with quantitative PCR. Results showed that transcripts of all CYPs were present in HepG2 cells, however, mRNA levels of most CYPs were dramatically lower than in primary human hepatocytes. These results were confirmed with luminometric assays which were used to measure the enzyme activities of CYP1A1, 1A2, 2C9, and 3A4. Regulation of CYP1A1, 1A2, 2B6, 2C8, 2D6, 2E1, and 3A4 by the aryl hydrocarbon receptor, pregnane X receptor and constitutive androstane receptor was studied in HepG2 cells at the mRNA and/or enzyme level. Regulation of CYP1A1, 1A2, 2B6, and 3A4 mRNA levels was similar to the regulation in primary human hepatocytes. In contrast, CYP2C8 mRNA levels are inducible in primary human hepatocytes, but not in HepG2 cells, after treatment with PXR/CAR activators. Consistent with other studies, CYP2D6 and 2E1 transcript levels were not changed after treatment with AhR, PXR, and CAR activators. Moreover, CYP1A1 and 1A2 enzyme levels could be induced by AhR agonists and CYP3A4 by PXR agonists. As a consequence of the low levels of CYPs in HepG2 cells, cytotoxicity of several compounds might have been missed or underestimated as compared with cytotoxicity in primary human hepatocytes. Inducing HepG2 cells with particular receptor stimulators might lead to higher toxicity for several of the tested compounds. Compared to primary human hepatocytes, HepG2 cells are a relatively easy-to-handle tool to study the up-regulation of CYP1A1, 1A2, 2B6, and 3A4.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Cell Line
  • Constitutive Androstane Receptor
  • Cryopreservation
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System / biosynthesis*
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System / genetics*
  • Enzyme Induction
  • Female
  • Hepatocytes / enzymology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pregnane X Receptor
  • RNA, Messenger / genetics
  • RNA, Messenger / metabolism
  • Receptors, Aryl Hydrocarbon / agonists
  • Receptors, Cytoplasmic and Nuclear / agonists
  • Receptors, Steroid / agonists
  • Transcription Factors / agonists


  • Constitutive Androstane Receptor
  • Pregnane X Receptor
  • RNA, Messenger
  • Receptors, Aryl Hydrocarbon
  • Receptors, Cytoplasmic and Nuclear
  • Receptors, Steroid
  • Transcription Factors
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System