Circulating acylcarnitines as biomarkers of mitochondrial dysfunction after acetaminophen overdose in mice and humans

Arch Toxicol. 2014 Feb;88(2):391-401. doi: 10.1007/s00204-013-1118-1. Epub 2013 Aug 25.


Acetaminophen (APAP) is a widely used analgesic. However, APAP overdose is hepatotoxic and is the primary cause of acute liver failure in the developed world. The mechanism of APAP-induced liver injury begins with protein binding and involves mitochondrial dysfunction and oxidative stress. Recent efforts to discover blood biomarkers of mitochondrial damage have identified increased plasma glutamate dehydrogenase activity and mitochondrial DNA concentration in APAP overdose patients. However, a problem with these markers is that they are too large to be released from cells without cell death or loss of membrane integrity. Metabolomic studies are more likely to reveal biomarkers that are useful at early time points, before injury begins. Similar to earlier work, our metabolomic studies revealed that acylcarnitines are elevated in serum from mice after treatment with toxic doses of APAP. Importantly, a comparison with furosemide demonstrated that increased serum acylcarnitines are specific for mitochondrial dysfunction. However, when we measured these compounds in plasma from humans with liver injury after APAP overdose, we could not detect any significant differences from control groups. Further experiments with mice showed that N-acetylcysteine, the antidote for APAP overdose in humans, can reduce acylcarnitine levels in serum. Altogether, our data do not support the clinical measurement of acylcarnitines in blood after APAP overdose due to the standard N-acetylcysteine treatment in patients, but strongly suggest that acylcarnitines would be useful mechanistic biomarkers in other forms of liver injury involving mitochondrial dysfunction.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acetaminophen / adverse effects*
  • Acetaminophen / blood
  • Acetylcysteine / pharmacology*
  • Animals
  • Antidotes / pharmacology*
  • Biomarkers / blood*
  • Carnitine / analogs & derivatives*
  • Carnitine / blood
  • Chemical and Drug Induced Liver Injury / blood*
  • Chemical and Drug Induced Liver Injury / pathology
  • Drug Overdose / blood*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Metabolomics / methods
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Mitochondria / drug effects*
  • Mitochondria / metabolism


  • Antidotes
  • Biomarkers
  • acylcarnitine
  • Acetaminophen
  • Carnitine
  • Acetylcysteine