Protective role of glutathione and glutathione transferases in mutagenesis and carcinogenesis

Mutat Res. 1988 Dec;202(2):343-61. doi: 10.1016/0027-5107(88)90197-2.


Glutathione (GSH) alone detoxifies electrophiles with an effectiveness which depends on the rate of the reaction and the concentration of GSH. If electrophiles are substrates for GSH transferase isoenzymes, the effectiveness of detoxication is much enhanced due to the increased rate of reaction and it is also independent of GSH concentration to low levels of GSH depletion, since the Km for GSH is approximately 0.1 mM. In this paper detoxication of electrophilic metabolites of the hepatocarcinogen N-methyl-4-aminoazobenzene which are not substrates for GSH transferases and the carcinogenic electrophile derived from the hepatocarcinogen aflatoxin B1 which is a poor substrate is compared with detoxication of electrophiles which are good substrates and which although bacterial mutagens are not carcinogenic in organs containing the appropriate GSH transferases. GSH transferases detoxify not only electrophiles derived from xenobiotics, but also endogenous electrophiles which are usually the consequence of free radical damage in the presence of oxygen to lipids and DNA and include lipid and DNA hydroperoxides and alkenals arising from the decomposition of lipid hydroperoxides. Studies in the rat and other mammals show the GSH transferases to be dimers in which the subunits are members of a gene super-family. There are three, perhaps four multigene families namely, alpha containing subunits 1, 2, 8 and 10; mu containing subunits 3, 4, 6 and 9; pi containing subunit 7 and subunits 5 and 5* which are so far unassigned. Subunit 5* is apparently restricted to the nucleus and is noteworthy for its activity towards DNA hydroperoxides. Studies in the human are not as advanced as in the rat but so far reveal close similarities. The ability of GSH transferases to detoxify electrophiles is important in carcinogenesis at a number of points. They may inhibit initiation and tumour proportion, but they may be advantageous to the developing tumour cell, and may be acquired in increased amounts during malignant progression. In many tumour cells the development of lines resistant to anticancer drugs is associated with an increased expression of GSH transferases, particularly GSH transferase pi in human cells.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Carcinogens / metabolism
  • Glutathione / metabolism*
  • Glutathione Transferase / metabolism*
  • Inactivation, Metabolic
  • Mutagens / metabolism
  • Mutation*
  • Neoplasms / physiopathology
  • Neoplasms / prevention & control*


  • Carcinogens
  • Mutagens
  • Glutathione Transferase
  • Glutathione