l-citrulline: A preclinical safety biomarker for the small intestine in rats and dogs in repeat dose toxicity studies

J Pharmacol Toxicol Methods. 2021 Jul-Aug:110:107068. doi: 10.1016/j.vascn.2021.107068. Epub 2021 May 1.


Introduction: Gastrointestinal (GI) toxicity is still an issue within drug development, especially for novel oncology drugs. The identification of GI mucosal damage at an early stage with high sensitivity and specificity across preclinical species and humans remains difficult. To date, in preclinical studies, no qualified mechanistic, diagnostic or prognostic biomarkers exist for GI mucosal toxicity. l-citrulline is one of the most promising biomarker candidates used in clinical settings to quantify enterocyte integrity in various small intestinal diseases. l-citrulline is an intermediate metabolic amino acid produced mainly by functional enterocytes of the small intestine, whereby enterocyte loss will cause a drop in circulating l-citrulline.

Methods: In several repeat-dose toxicity studies, plasma l-citrulline has been evaluated as a potential safety biomarker for intestinal toxicity in beagle dogs and Wistar (Han) rats treated with different oncological drug candidates in drug development. Clinical observations and body weight determinations were performed during the pretreatment, treatment and treatment-free recovery period as well as toxicokinetic, gross and histopathology examinations. The quantitative determination of plasma l-citrulline levels during the pretreatment (only dogs), treatment and treatment-free recovery period were performed using an HPLC MS/MS assay. In cynomolgus monkeys, the first investigations on baseline l-citrulline levels were performed.

Results: In dogs, a dose- and exposure-dependent decrease of up to 50% in plasma l-citrulline was seen without histopathological alterations. However, a decrease of more than 50% in comparison to the individual animal pretreatment value of l-citrulline correlated very well with histopathological findings (intestinal crypt necrosis, villus atrophy, enterocyte loss) and clinical signs (bloody faeces and diarrhoea). During a treatment-free recovery period, a trend of increasing levels was observed in dogs. In rats, absolute l-citrulline plasma levels of treated animals decreased compared to the values of the concurrent control group. This decrease also correlated with the histopathological findings in the small intestine (single cell necrosis and mucosa atrophy). Because of a large physiological variation in l-citrulline plasma levels in dogs and rats, a clear cut-off value for absolute l-citrulline levels predictive of intestinal mucosal toxicity was difficult to establish. However, a > 50% decrease in l-citrulline plasma levels during the treatment period strongly correlated with histopathological findings.

Discussion: Based on the performed analysis, a longitudinal investigation of l-citrulline plasma levels for individual animals in the control and treatment groups is essential and pretreatment values of l-citrulline levels in rodents would be highly informative. Overall, further cross-species comparison (Cynomolgus monkey, mouse) and implementation in clinical trials as exploratory biomarker is essential to foster the hypothesis and to understand completely the clinical relevance of l-citrulline as a small intestine biomarker.

Keywords: Biomarker; Cynomolgus monkey; Dog; Intestinal toxicity; Methods; Rat; Toxicology; l-citrulline.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomarkers
  • Citrulline* / toxicity
  • Dogs
  • Intestine, Small
  • Macaca fascicularis
  • Mice
  • Rats
  • Rats, Wistar
  • Tandem Mass Spectrometry*


  • Biomarkers
  • Citrulline