Thimerosal induces apoptotic and fibrotic changes to kidney epithelial cells in vitro

Environ Toxicol. 2015 Dec;30(12):1423-33. doi: 10.1002/tox.22012. Epub 2014 Jun 18.


Thimerosal is an ethyl mercury-containing compound used mainly in vaccines as a bactericide. Although the kidney is a key target for mercury toxicity, thimerosal nephrotoxicity has not received the same attention as other mercury species. The aim of this study was to determine the potential cytotoxic mechanisms of thimerosal on human kidney cells. Human kidney proximal tubular epithelial (HK2) cells were exposed for 24 h to thimerosal (0-2 µM), and assessed for cell viability, apoptosis, and cell proliferation; expression of proteins Bax, nuclear factor-κB subunits, and transforming growth factor-β1 (TGFβ1); mitochondrial health (JC-1, MitoTracker Red CMXRos); and fibronectin levels (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay). Thimerosal diminished HK2 cell viability and mitosis, promoted apoptosis, impaired the mitochondrial permeability transition, enhanced Bax and TGFβ1 expression, and augmented fibronectin secretion. This is the first report about kidney cell death and pro-fibrotic mechanisms promoted by thimerosal. Collectively, these in vitro results demonstrate that (1) thimerosal induces kidney epithelial cell apoptosis via upregulating Bax and the mitochondrial apoptotic pathway, and (2) thimerosal is a potential pro-fibrotic agent in human kidney cells. We suggest that new evidence on toxicity as well as continuous surveillance in terms of fibrogenesis is required concerning thimerosal use.

Keywords: apoptosis; ethyl mercury; fibrosis; kidney; mitochondrial dysfunction; thimerosal; toxicity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Apoptosis / drug effects*
  • Apoptosis Regulatory Proteins / metabolism
  • Cell Line
  • Cell Proliferation / drug effects
  • Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay
  • Epithelial Cells / cytology
  • Epithelial Cells / drug effects
  • Epithelial Cells / metabolism
  • Fibronectins / analysis
  • Fibrosis
  • Humans
  • Kidney Tubules / cytology
  • Mitochondria / drug effects
  • Mitochondria / metabolism
  • Mitosis / drug effects
  • NF-kappa B / metabolism
  • Thimerosal / toxicity*
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta1 / metabolism
  • bcl-2-Associated X Protein / metabolism


  • Apoptosis Regulatory Proteins
  • Fibronectins
  • NF-kappa B
  • Transforming Growth Factor beta1
  • bcl-2-Associated X Protein
  • Thimerosal