Cellular uptake, subcellular distribution and toxicity of arsenic compounds in methylating and non-methylating cells

Environ Res. 2010 Jul;110(5):435-42. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2009.08.012. Epub 2009 Sep 15.


Arsenic is a known human carcinogen, inducing tumors of the skin, urinary bladder, liver and lung. Inorganic arsenic, existing in highly toxic trivalent and significantly less toxic pentavalent forms, is methylated to mono- and di-methylated species mainly in the liver. Due to the low toxicity of pentavalent methylated species, methylation has been regarded as a detoxification process for many years; however, recent findings of a high toxicity of trivalent methylated species have indicated the contrary. In order to elucidate the role of speciation and methylation for the toxicity and carcinogenicity of arsenic, systematic studies were conducted comparing cellular uptake, subcellular distribution as well as toxic and genotoxic effects of organic and inorganic pentavalent and trivalent arsenic species in both non-methylating (urothelial cells and fibroblasts) and methylating cells (hepatocytes). The membrane permeability was found to be dependent upon both the arsenic species and the cell type. Uptake rates of trivalent methylated species were highest and exceeded those of their pentavalent counterparts by several orders of magnitude. Non-methylating cells (urothelial cells and fibroblasts) seem to accumulate higher amounts of arsenic within the cell than the methylating hepatocytes. Cellular uptake and extrusion seem to be faster in hepatocytes than in urothelial cells. The correlation of uptake with toxicity indicates a significant role of membrane permeability towards toxicity. Furthermore, cytotoxic effects are more distinct in hepatocytes. Differential centrifugation studies revealed that elevated concentrations of arsenic are present in the ribosomal fraction of urothelial cells and in nucleic and mitochondrial fractions of hepatic cells. Further studies are needed to define the implications of the observed enrichment of arsenic in specific cellular organelles for its carcinogenic activity. This review summarizes our recent research on cellular uptake, distribution and toxicity of arsenic compounds in methylating and non-methylating cells.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Arsenates / metabolism*
  • Arsenates / toxicity
  • Arsenites / metabolism*
  • Arsenites / toxicity
  • Carcinogens / metabolism*
  • Carcinogens / toxicity
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Fibroblasts / drug effects
  • Fibroblasts / metabolism
  • Hepatocytes / drug effects
  • Hepatocytes / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Intracellular Space / metabolism
  • Methylation / drug effects
  • Permeability / drug effects
  • Sodium Compounds / metabolism*
  • Sodium Compounds / toxicity
  • Toxicity Tests
  • Urothelium / drug effects
  • Urothelium / metabolism


  • Arsenates
  • Arsenites
  • Carcinogens
  • Sodium Compounds
  • sodium arsenite
  • sodium arsenate