Human liver-kidney model elucidates the mechanisms of aristolochic acid nephrotoxicity

JCI Insight. 2017 Nov 16;2(22):e95978. doi: 10.1172/jci.insight.95978.


Environmental exposures pose a significant threat to human health. However, it is often difficult to study toxicological mechanisms in human subjects due to ethical concerns. Plant-derived aristolochic acids are among the most potent nephrotoxins and carcinogens discovered to date, yet the mechanism of bioactivation in humans remains poorly understood. Microphysiological systems (organs-on-chips) provide an approach to examining the complex, species-specific toxicological effects of pharmaceutical and environmental chemicals using human cells. We microfluidically linked a kidney-on-a-chip with a liver-on-a-chip to determine the mechanisms of bioactivation and transport of aristolochic acid I (AA-I), an established nephrotoxin and human carcinogen. We demonstrate that human hepatocyte-specific metabolism of AA-I substantially increases its cytotoxicity toward human kidney proximal tubular epithelial cells, including formation of aristolactam adducts and release of kidney injury biomarkers. Hepatic biotransformation of AA-I to a nephrotoxic metabolite involves nitroreduction, followed by sulfate conjugation. Here, we identify, in a human tissue-based system, that the sulfate conjugate of the hepatic NQO1-generated aristolactam product of AA-I (AL-I-NOSO3) is the nephrotoxic form of AA-I. This conjugate can be transported out of liver via MRP membrane transporters and then actively transported into kidney tissue via one or more organic anionic membrane transporters. This integrated microphysiological system provides an ex vivo approach for investigating organ-organ interactions, whereby the metabolism of a drug or other xenobiotic by one tissue may influence its toxicity toward another, and represents an experimental approach for studying chemical toxicity related to environmental and other toxic exposures.

Keywords: Cell Biology; Chronic kidney disease; Molecular pathology; Nephrology; Toxins/drugs/xenobiotics.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Aristolochic Acids / toxicity*
  • Biomarkers
  • Biotransformation
  • Carcinogens / toxicity
  • Dicumarol / metabolism
  • Epithelial Cells
  • Hepatocytes / drug effects
  • Hepatocytes / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Kidney / drug effects*
  • Kidney / injuries
  • Kidney / metabolism*
  • Liver / drug effects*
  • Liver / metabolism*
  • Male
  • Multidrug Resistance-Associated Proteins / metabolism
  • NAD(P)H Dehydrogenase (Quinone) / metabolism
  • Nephrons / drug effects
  • Nephrons / metabolism
  • Pathology, Molecular / instrumentation
  • Pathology, Molecular / methods
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Renal Insufficiency, Chronic
  • Xenobiotics


  • ABCC4 protein, human
  • Aristolochic Acids
  • Biomarkers
  • Carcinogens
  • Multidrug Resistance-Associated Proteins
  • Xenobiotics
  • multidrug resistance-associated protein 3
  • Dicumarol
  • aristolochic acid I
  • NAD(P)H Dehydrogenase (Quinone)
  • NQO1 protein, human