Characterization of N-acetylcysteine and ambroxol in anti-oxidant therapy

Respir Med. 1998 Apr;92(4):609-23. doi: 10.1016/s0954-6111(98)90506-6.


Reactive free oxygen radicals are known to play an important role in the pathogenesis of various lung diseases such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) or cystic fibrosis (CF). They can originate from endogenous processes or can be part of exogenous exposures (e.g. ozone, cigarette smoke, asbestos fibres). Consequently, therapeutic enhancement of anti-oxidant defence mechanisms in these lung disorders seems a rational approach. In this regard, N-acetyl-L-cysteine (NAC) and ambroxol have both been frequently investigated. Because of its SH group, NAC scavenges H2O2 (hydrogen peroxide), .OH (hydroxol radical), and HOCl (hypochlorous acid). Furthermore, NAC can easily be deacetylated to cysteine, an important precursor of cellular glutathione synthesis, and thus stimulate the cellular glutathione system. This is most evident in pulmonary diseases characterized by low glutathione levels and high oxidant production by inflammatory cells (e.g. in IPF and ARDS). NAC is an effective drug in the treatment of paracetamol intoxication and may even be protective against side-effects of mutagenic agents. In addition NAC reduces cellular production of pro-inflammatory mediators (e.g. TNF-alpha, IL-1). Also, ambroxol [trans-4-(2-amino-3,5-dibromobenzylamino)-cyclohexane hydrochloride] scavenges oxidants (e.g. .OH, HOCl). Moreover, ambroxol reduces bronchial hyperreactivity, and it is known to stimulate cellular surfactant production. In addition, ambroxol has anti-inflammatory properties owing to its inhibitory effect on the production of cellular cytokines and arachidonic acid metabolites. For both substances effective anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory function has been validated when used in micromolar concentrations. These levels are attainable in vivo in humans. This paper gives an up-to-date overview about the current knowledge of the hypothesis that oxidant-induced cellular damage underlies the pathogenesis of many human pulmonary diseases, and it discusses the feasibility of anti-oxidant augmentation therapy to the lung by using NAC or ambroxol.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acetylcysteine / therapeutic use*
  • Ambroxol / therapeutic use*
  • Animals
  • Expectorants / therapeutic use*
  • Free Radical Scavengers / therapeutic use*
  • Humans
  • Lung / metabolism
  • Lung Diseases / drug therapy*
  • Lung Diseases / metabolism


  • Expectorants
  • Free Radical Scavengers
  • Ambroxol
  • Acetylcysteine