Metabolic, desmutagenic and anticarcinogenic effects of n-acetylcysteine

S. De Flora, G. A. Rossi, A. De Flora

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


N-acetylcysteine (NAC) is often administered to respiratory patients with histories of exposure to noxious agents (e.g. cigarette smoke and atmospheric pollutants), which are known to act as glutathione (GSH) depletors and as cancer initiators and/or promoters. Since NAC is a precursor of intracellular GSH, we investigated its effects on GSH metabolism and on the biotransformation of carcinogenic and/or mutagenic compounds. In vitro, NAC induced a significant increase in oxidized glutathione (GSSG) reductase activity in rat liver preparations and counteracted the mutagenicity of direct-acting compounds (such as epichlorohydrin, hydrogen peroxide, 4-nitroquinoline-N-oxide and dichromate), as a result of its reducing and scavenging properties. At high concentrations, the drug completely inhibited the mutagenicity of procarcinogens (cigarette smoke condensate, tryptophan pyrolysate, cyclophosphamide, 2-aminofluorene, benzo(a)pyrene and aflatoxin B1) by binding their electrophilic metabolites. In contrast, their metabolic activation was stimulated by decreasing NAC concentrations, especially when liver preparations from enzyme-induced rats were used. Lung and liver subcellular preparations of rats treated in vivo with NAC, in various combinations with enzyme inducers and/or GSH depletors, also affected the mutagenicity of a number of compounds. NAC generally increased intracellular GSH and restored its levels following depletion. It did not affect the levels nor the spectral properties of cytochromes P-450 in pulmonary and hepatic microsomes, whereas it stimulated, especially in Aroclor-pretreated animals, cytosolic enzyme activities involved in NADP or GSSG reduction (G6PD, 6PGD and GSSG reductase) and in the reductive detoxification of xenobiotics (DT diaphorase). When administered with the diet, at a nontoxic posology (120 mg/kg b.w.), NAC markedly inhibited the induction of lung tumors in mice by a potent carcinogen (urethane).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)43-49
Number of pages7
Publication statusPublished - 1986


  • Anticarcinogenesis
  • Antimutagenesis
  • Glutathione
  • N-acetylcysteine

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pulmonary and Respiratory Medicine
  • Physiology


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