Covalent binding of xenobiotics to specific proteins in the liver

Drug Metab Rev. 1997 Feb-May;29(1-2):39-57. doi: 10.3109/03602539709037572.


Chemicals that cause toxicity though a direct mechanism, such as acetaminophen, covalently bind to a select group of proteins prior to the development of toxicity, and these proteins may be important in the initiation of the events that lead to the hepatotoxicity. Disruption of the cell is measured by release of intracellular proteins such as alanine aminotransferase and occurs late in the time course following a hepatotoxic dose of a direct toxin. Prior to this disruption, there appears to be a large number of proteins covalently modified by a reactive metabolite. There are at least two possible mechanisms that may cause the toxicity. First, some critical protein is a target of the reactive metabolite. Disruption of the enzymatic function (or a critical pathway for a regulatory protein) may lead directly to cell death. With the direct hepatotoxin acetaminophen, there is a decrease in the activity of several of the early target proteins, but how this disruption of critical proteins leads to the toxicity is still unclear. The early targets appear to be proteins with accessible nucleophilic sulfhydryl groups, and usually the target has a high concentration of the protein within the cell. It is possible that the binding to some of these proteins represents a detoxification protecting more critical targets within the cell. A second mechanism for the direct toxicity is that more and more proteins become targets in the time course following administration of a direct toxin, and eventually the cells machinery is overwhelmed. The cell can then no longer function, or there is a disruption the redox balance within the cell due to the decreased function of numerous proteins. In contrast to the direct-acting toxins, the chemical-protein conjugates that initiate toxicity through an activation of the immune system appear to have a limited number of target proteins and are localized within one subcellular fraction. Halothane produces adducts almost exclusively in the microsomal fraction, and these adducts appear to be limited to selective proteins with high concentrations in this fraction. The substitution level is an important factor in the development of an immune response. Halothane hepatitis patients' antibodies primarily recognize proteins with a high substitution level. For halothane and diclofenac, the proteins are accessible to the immune system through exposure on the plasma membrane. Trichloroethylene binds primarily to a 50-kDa microsomal protein, and preliminary evidence has been presented which indicates that a trichloroethylene-protein conjugate is released into the blood following exposure, where contact with the immune system can occur. In order to elicit an immune response the immune system requires multiple exposure to the chemical-protein conjugates. With halothane hepatitis and with diclofenac hepatitis, as well as occupational and environmental exposure to trichloroethylene, there are multiple exposures leading to repeat presentation of the protein adducts to the immune system; this situation is not generally found with acetaminophen overdose patients. In summary, direct toxicants such as acetaminophen covalently bind to selected targets which may be critical to the development of hepatotoxicity, and they later form adducts with numerous proteins which may overwhelm the cell's capacity to maintain homeostasis, leading to loss of vital function and cell death (Fig.3). In contrast, indirect toxicants that elicit an immune-mediated toxicity such as halothane, and possibly diclofenac and trichloroethylene, appear to have a limited number of protein targets with a high substitution level, and the immune system is exposed repeatedly to the modified proteins.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Liver / chemistry
  • Liver / metabolism*
  • Liver / pathology
  • Protein Binding
  • Proteins / metabolism*
  • Xenobiotics / chemistry
  • Xenobiotics / metabolism*


  • Proteins
  • Xenobiotics