One man's poison is another man's meat: using azithromycin-induced phospholipidosis to promote ocular surface health

Toxicology. 2014 Jun 5;320:1-5. doi: 10.1016/j.tox.2014.02.014. Epub 2014 Mar 6.


Drug-induced phospholipidosis (PLD) is a common adverse effect which has led to the termination of clinical trials for many candidate pharmaceuticals. However, this lipid-inducing effect may be beneficial in the treatment of meibomian gland dysfunction (MGD). MGD is the major cause of dry eye disease (DED), which affects 40 million people in the USA and has no cure. Azithromycin (AZM) is a PLD-inducing antibiotic that is used off-label to treat MGD, and is presumably effective because it suppresses the MGD-associated conjunctival inflammation (i.e. posterior blepharitis) and growth of lid bacteria. We hypothesize that AZM can act directly to promote the function of human meibomian gland epithelial cells by inducing PLD in these cells, characterized by the accumulation of lipids and lysosomes. Immortalized human meibomian gland epithelial cells (HMGEC) were cultured with or without azithromycin for 5 days. Cells were evaluated for cholesterol (Filipin) and neutral lipid (LipidTox) staining, as well as the appearance of lysosomes (LysoTracker) and lamellar bodies (transmission electron microscopy, TEM). The lipid composition of cellular lysates was analyzed by high performance thin-layer chromatography. Our findings demonstrate that AZM stimulates the accumulation of free cholesterol, neutral lipids and lysosomes in HMGEC. This AZM-induced increase of neutral lipid content occurred predominantly within lysosomes. Many of these vesicles appeared to be lamellar bodies by TEM, which is the characteristic of PLD. Our findings also show that AZM promotes an accumulation of free and esterified cholesterol, as well as phospholipids in HMGECimmortalized. Our results support our hypothesis and confirm the beneficial effect of PLD induced by AZM on HMGEC. Our discovery reveals a new potential use of PLD-inducing drugs, and makes this adverse effect a beneficial effect.

Keywords: Azithromycin; Cationic amphiphilic drugs; Dry eye disease; Meibomian gland dysfunction; Phospholipidosis.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Anti-Bacterial Agents / pharmacology*
  • Azithromycin / pharmacology*
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Cholesterol / metabolism
  • Chromatography, Thin Layer
  • Epithelial Cells / drug effects*
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Lipid Metabolism / drug effects
  • Lysosomes / metabolism
  • Meibomian Glands / drug effects*
  • Meibomian Glands / metabolism
  • Meibomian Glands / pathology
  • Microscopy, Electron, Transmission
  • Phospholipids / metabolism*


  • Anti-Bacterial Agents
  • Phospholipids
  • Azithromycin
  • Cholesterol