Three models of free radical-induced cell injury

Chem Biol Interact. 1989;72(1-2):1-56. doi: 10.1016/0009-2797(89)90016-1.


Three models of free radical-induced cell injury are presented in this review. Each model is described by the mechanism of action of few prototype toxic molecules. Carbon tetrachloride and monobromotrichloromethane were selected as model molecules for alkylating agents that do not induce GSH depletion. Bromobenzene and allyl alcohol were selected as prototypes of GSH depleting agents. Paraquat and menadione were presented as prototypes of redox cycling compounds. All these groups of toxins are converted, during their intracellular metabolism, to active species which can be radical species or electrophilic intermediates. In most cases the activation is catalyzed by the microsomal mixed function oxidase system, while in other cases (e.g. allyl alcohol) cytosolic enzymes are responsible for the activation. Radical species can bind covalently to cellular macromolecules and can promote lipid peroxidation in cellular membranes. Of course both phenomena produce cell damage as in the case of CCl4 or BrCCl3 intoxication. However, the covalent binding is likely to produce damage at the molecular site where it occurs; lipid peroxidation, on the other hand, besides causing loss of membrane structure, also gives rise to toxic products such as 4-hydroxyalkenals and other aldehydes which in principle can move from the site of origin and produce effects at distant sites. Electrophilic intermediates readily reacts with cellular nucleophiles, primarily with GSH. The result is a severe GSH depletion as in the case of bromobenzene or allyl alcohol intoxication. When the depletion reaches some threshold values lipid peroxidation develops abruptly and in an extensive way. This event is accompanied by cellular death. The reason for which lipid peroxidation develops in a cell severely depleted of GSH remains to be clarified. Probably the loss of the defense systems against a constitutive oxidative stress is not compatible with cellular life. Some free radicals generated by one-electron reduction can react with oxygen to give superoxide anions which can be converted to other more dangerous reactive oxygen species. This is the case of paraquat and menadione. Damage to cellular macromolecules is due to the direct action of these oxygen radicals and, at least in the menadione-induced cytotoxicity, lipid peroxidation is not involved. All these initial events affect the protein sulfhydryl groups in the membranes. Since some protein thiols are essential components of the molecular arrangement responsible for the Ca2+ transport across cellular membranes, loss of such thiols can affect the calcium sequestration activity of subcellular compartments, that is the capacity of mitochondria and microsomes to regulate the cytosolic calcium level.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alkylating Agents / toxicity
  • Animals
  • Calcium / metabolism
  • Cell Physiological Phenomena*
  • Cell Survival
  • Drug-Related Side Effects and Adverse Reactions*
  • Free Radicals
  • Glutathione / metabolism
  • Lipid Peroxidation
  • Models, Biological*
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations / metabolism


  • Alkylating Agents
  • Free Radicals
  • Pharmaceutical Preparations
  • Glutathione
  • Calcium