Quantitation of a minor enantiomer of phenanthrene tetraol in human urine: correlations with levels of overall phenanthrene tetraol, benzo[a]pyrene tetraol, and 1-hydroxypyrene

Chem Res Toxicol. 2011 Feb 18;24(2):262-8. doi: 10.1021/tx100391z. Epub 2011 Jan 13.


Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) are well established carcinogens that are likely to play a role in causing some human cancers. One accepted pathway of PAH metabolic activation is the formation of bay region diol epoxides. Some individuals may be particularly susceptible to PAH carcinogenesis because they metabolically activate PAH more effectively than others. We have used the measurement of urinary phenanthrene tetraols (Phe-tetraols) as a biomarker of PAH exposure plus metabolic activation since bay region diol epoxides are hydrolyzed to tetraols. Because of stereoselectivity in Phe metabolism, Phe-(1R,2S,3R,4S)-tetraol (4) results mainly from the bay region diol epoxide pathway, and Phe-(1S,2R,3S,4R)-tetraol (7) is formed mainly from the reverse diol epoxide pathway, not generally associated with carcinogenicity. The latter pathway accounts for more than 95% of human urinary Phe-tetraol. In most previous studies, Phe-tetraol was quantified without enantiomeric resolution, using a relatively rapid and practical method, applicable to large studies. It was not clear, however, whether measurement of overall unresolved Phe-tetraol would accurately represent the bay region diol epoxide metabolic activation pathway. Therefore, in this study we specifically quantified Phe-(1R,2S,3R,4S)-tetraol (4) by supplementing our usual analysis with chiral HPLC separations and using [(13)C(6)]Phe-(1R,2S,3R,4S)-tetraol as internal standard. We then investigated the relationship of urinary levels of 4 to those of Phe-tetraols (4 + 7), quantified without enantiomeric resolution. We applied these methods to urine samples from cigarette smokers and highly PAH-exposed creosote workers. The results were also compared to levels of benzo[a]pyrene-7,8,9,10-tetraol and 1-hydroxypyrene in the same samples. Levels of 4 were highly correlated with those of 4 + 7 (r > 0.9, P < 0.0001) in both types of urine samples. Strong correlations of 4 and 4 + 7 with benzo[a]pyrene-7,8,9,10-tetraol and 1-hydroxypyrene were also observed. The results of this study demonstrate therefore that practical and convenient measurement of overall Phe-tetraols (4 + 7) in human urine, without enantiomeric resolution, is an excellent indicator of PAH exposure and metabolism by the bay region diol epoxide metabolic activation pathway.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Benzo(a)pyrene / metabolism*
  • Carcinogens / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • Phenanthrenes / metabolism
  • Phenanthrenes / urine*
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / metabolism
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons / urine
  • Pyrenes / metabolism*
  • Smoking / metabolism
  • Smoking / urine*


  • Carcinogens
  • Phenanthrenes
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons
  • Pyrenes
  • phenanthrene tetraol
  • Benzo(a)pyrene
  • 1-hydroxypyrene