Paracetamol-induced liver injury modelled in Xenopus laevis embryos

Katy Saide, Victoria Sherwood, Grant N. Wheeler (Lead Author)

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Introduction: Failure to predict drug-induced liver injury (DILI) remains a major contributing factor to lead compound drop-out during drug development. Xenopus embryos are amenable for early stage medium throughput small molecule screens and so have the potential to be used in pre-clinical screens. To begin to assess the usefulness and limitations of Xenopus embryos for safety assessment in the early phases of drug development, paracetamol was used as a model hepatotoxin. Paracetamol overdose is associated with acute liver injury. In mammals, the main mechanism of paracetamol-induced acute liver injury is an increased amount of the reactive metabolite N-acetyl-p-benzoquinone imine (NAPQI) combined with a reduction of free glutathione (GSH). Humans that have taken an overdose of paracetamol are often treated with N-acetyl cysteine (NAC).

Method: Xenopus laevis embryos were treated with up to 5 mM paracetamol from stage 38 to stage 45 during development, when the liver is functional. The presence of paracetamol-induced liver injury was assessed by: (Dart et al., 2006) microRNA-122 (miR-122) expression (a hepatic marker), (Jaeschke, 2015) free GSH concentration (a marker of oxidative stress) and (Larson et al., 2005) NAC antioxidant intervention.

Results: The amount of free GSH decreased significantly in embryos exposed to increasing paracetamol concentration. In embryos exposed to 5 mM paracetamol, 22.57 ± 4.25 nmol/mg GSH was detected compared to 47.11 ± 7.31 nmol/mg untreated embryos (mean ± SEM). In tail tissue, miRNA-122 expression increased 6.3-fold with 3 mM paracetamol concentration treatment compared to untreated embryos. NAC treatment altered the free GSH decline for embryos treated with up to 5 mM. Embryos exposed to 1 mM paracetamol and then exposed to 0.5 mM NAC 24 h prior to harvest, had an significantly higher amount GSH compared to embryos that were only exposed to 1 mM paracetamol (mean ± SEM; 97.1 ± 9.6 nmol/mg and 54.5 ± 6.6 nmol/mg respectively).

Conclusion: Xenopus laevis embryos exhibit similar characteristics of paracetamol-induced liver injury observed in mammalian models. These data indicate that the Xenopus embryo could be a useful in vivo model to assess DILI and aid lead compound prioritisation during the early phase of drug development, in combination with pre-clinical in vitro studies. Consequently, the Xenopus embryo could contribute to the reduction principle as defined by the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)83-91
Number of pages9
JournalToxicology Letters
Early online date30 Sep 2018
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2019


  • Xenopus laevis
  • Drug-induced liver injury (DILI)
  • paracetamol
  • pre-clinical studies

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