Metal-induced hepatotoxicity

Semin Liver Dis. 1996 Feb;16(1):3-12. doi: 10.1055/s-2007-1007214.


Figure 3 summarizes several proposed mechanisms of iron- or copper-induced hepatotoxicity. It has long been suspected that free radicals may play a role in iron- and copper-induced cell toxicity because of the powerful prooxidant action of iron and copper salts in vitro. In the presence of available cellular reductants, iron or copper in low molecular weight forms may play a catalytic role in the initiation of free radical reactions. The resulting oxyradicals have the potential to damage cellular lipids, nucleic acids, proteins, and carbohydrates, resulting in wide-ranging impairment in cellular function and integrity. However, cells are endowed with cytoprotective mechanisms (antioxidants, scavenging enzymes, repair processes) that act to counteract the effects of free radical production. Thus, the net effect of metal-induced free radicals on cellular function will depend on the balance between radical production and the cytoprotective systems As a result, there may be a rate of free radical production that must be exceeded before cellular injury occurs. Evidence has now accumulated that iron or copper overload in experimental animals can result in oxidative damage to lipids in vivo, once the concentration of the metal exceeds a threshold level. In the liver, this lipid peroxidation is associated with impairment of membrane-dependent functions of mitochondria (oxidative metabolism) and lysosomes (membrane integrity, fluidity, pH). Although these findings do not prove causality, it seems likely that lipid peroxidation is involved, since similar functional defects are produced by metal-induced lipid peroxidation in these organelles in vitro. Both iron and copper overload impair hepatic mitochondrial respiration, primarily through a decrease in cytochrome c oxidase activity. In iron overload, hepatocellular calcium homeostasis may be impaired through damage to mitochondrial and microsomal calcium sequestration. DNA has also been reported to be a target of metal-induced damage in the liver; this may have consequences as regards malignant transformation. The levels of some antioxidants in the liver are decreased in rats with iron or copper overload, which is also suggestive of ongoing oxidative stress. Reduced cellular ATP levels, lysosomal fragility, impaired cellular calcium homeostasis, and damage to DNA may all contribute to hepatocellular injury in iron and copper overload. There are few data addressing the key issue of whether free radical production is increased in patients with iron or copper overload. Patients with hereditary hemochromatosis have elevated plasma levels of TBA-reactants and increased hepatic levels of MDA-protein and HNE-protein adducts, indicative of lipid peroxidation. Mitochondria isolated from the livers of Wilson disease patients have evidence of lipid peroxidation, and some patients with Wilson disease have decreased hepatic and plasma levels of vitamin E. Additional investigation will be required to fully assess oxidant stress and its potential pathophysiologic role in patients with iron or copper overload.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Calcium / metabolism
  • Cell Transformation, Neoplastic
  • Copper / adverse effects*
  • Free Radicals / adverse effects
  • Homeostasis
  • Iron / adverse effects*
  • Lipid Peroxidation / drug effects
  • Liver / drug effects*
  • Liver / metabolism
  • Lysosomes / drug effects
  • Lysosomes / metabolism
  • Metals / adverse effects*
  • Mitochondria, Liver / drug effects
  • Mitochondria, Liver / metabolism
  • Oxidants / adverse effects
  • Oxidative Stress / drug effects
  • Rats
  • Reactive Oxygen Species / adverse effects


  • Free Radicals
  • Metals
  • Oxidants
  • Reactive Oxygen Species
  • Copper
  • Iron
  • Calcium