Fructus Gardeniae (FG) is a common Chinese medicine and food. However, the toxicity of FG has drawn increasing concern, especially its hepatotoxicity. The purpose of this study was to screen the hepatotoxic components of FG and evaluate their effects on rat liver BRL-3A cells. The chemical composition of FG was determined by HPLC-ESI-MS. CCK-8 assay was used to evaluate the cytotoxicity of ten chemical components from FG, and then the toxic components with significant inhibitory activity were selected for further study. The results showed that geniposide, genipin, genipin-1-gentiobioside, gardenoside, and shanzhiside all suppress cells viability. Apoptosis assays further indicated that geniposide and its metabolite genipin are the main hepatotoxic components of FG. Pretreatment of cells with geniposide or genipin increased the levels of aspartate aminotransferase (AST), alanine aminotransferase (ALT), and alkaline phosphatase (ALP). The activities of superoxide dismutase (SOD) and glutathione (GSH) were decreased, while the malondialdehyde (MDA) level was increased. The cell contents of tumor necrosis factor (TNF-α), interleukin-6 (IL-6), and nitric oxide (NO) were also increased. Molecular docking simulations were used to investigate the mechanism of FG-induced hepatotoxicity, revealing that geniposide and genipin bind strongly to the pro-inflammatory factor TNFR1 receptor of the NF-κB and MAPK signaling pathways. The obtained results strongly indicate that the hepatotoxicity of FG is caused by iridoids compounds. Genipin had the most significant hepatotoxic effect. These toxic substances destroy the cell antioxidant defense system, increasing inflammatory injury to the liver cells and leading to apoptosis and even necrosis. Thus, this study lays a foundation for toxicology research into FG and its rational application.
Keywords: BRL-3A rat liver cells; Fructus Gardeniae; apoptosis; genipin; geniposide; hepatotoxicity; inflammation.