NADPH-cytochrome P450 reductase expression and enzymatic activity in primary-like human hepatocytes and HepG2 cells for in vitro biotransformation studies

Clin Hemorheol Microcirc. 2019;73(1):249-260. doi: 10.3233/CH-199226.


Background: Human hepatocyte in vitro cell culture systems are important models for drug development and toxicology studies in the context of liver xenobiotic metabolism. Often, such culture systems are used to elucidate the biotransformation of xenobiotics or drugs and further investigate drug and drug metabolite effects on biological systems in terms of potential therapeutic benefit or toxicity. Human hepatocytes currently used for such in vitro studies are mostly primary cells or cell lines derived from liver cancers. Both approaches have limitations such as low proliferation capacity and progressive dedifferentiation found in primary cells or lack of liver functions in cell lines, which makes it difficult to reliably predict biotransformation of xenobiotics in patients. In order to overcome these limitations, HepaFH3 cells and Upcyte® hepatocytes representing primary-like hepatocytes of the first and second generation are increasingly used. Based on primary human hepatocyte cells transduced for stable expression of Upcyte® proliferation genes, they are mitotically active and exhibit liver functions over an extended period, making them comparable to primary human hepatocytes. These hepatocyte models show active liver metabolism such as urea and glycogen formation as well as biotransformation of xenobiotics. The latter is based on the expression, activity and inducibility of cytochrome P450 enzymes (CYP) as essential phase I reaction components. However, for further characterisation in terms of performance and existing limitations, additional studies are needed to elucidate the mechanisms involved in phase I reactions. One prerequisite is sufficient activity of microsomal NADPH-cytochrome P450 reductase (POR) functionally connected as electron donor to those CYP enzymes.

Objective: For Upcyte® hepatocytes and HepaFH3 cells, it is so far unknown to what extent POR is expressed, active, and may exert CYP-modulating effects. Here we studied POR expression and corresponding enzyme activity in human hepatoblastoma cell line HepG2 and compared this with HepaFH3 and Upcyte® hepatocytes representing proliferating primary-like hepatocytes.

Methods: POR expression of those hepatocyte models was determined at mRNA and protein level using qRT-PCR, Western Blot and immunofluorescence staining. Kinetic studies on POR activity in isolated microsomes were performed by a colorimetric method.

Results: The investigated hepatocyte models showed remarkable differences at the level of POR expression. Compared to primary-like hepatocytes, POR expression of HepG2 cells was 4-fold higher at mRNA and 2-fold higher at protein level. However, this higher expression did not correlate with corresponding enzyme activity levels in isolated microsomes, which were comparable between all cell systems tested. A tendency of higher POR activity in HepG2 cells compared to HepaFH3(p = 0.0829) might be present. Compared to primary human hepatocyte microsomes, POR activity was considerably lower in all hepatocyte models.

Conclusion: In summary, our study revealed that POR expression and activity were clearly detectable in all in vitro hepatocyte models with the highest POR expression in cancer cell line HepG2. However, POR activity was lower in tested hepatocyte models when compared to human primary hepatocyte microsomes. Whether this was caused by e.g. polymorphisms or metabolic differences of investigated hepatocyte models will be target for future studies.

Keywords: Biotransformation; CYP; HepG2; HepaFH3; NADPH-cytochrome P450 reductase; POR; Upcyte® hepatocytes; cytochrome P450 monooxygenase; hepatocytes; xenobiotics.

MeSH terms

  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System / metabolism*
  • Hep G2 Cells / cytology
  • Hep G2 Cells / metabolism*
  • Hepatocytes / cytology
  • Hepatocytes / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • NADP / metabolism*


  • NADP
  • Cytochrome P-450 Enzyme System