Prolonged N-acetylcysteine therapy in late acetaminophen poisoning associated with acute liver failure – a need to be more cautious?
Critical Care volume 13, Article number: 144 (2009)
Since the 1970s, N-acetylcysteine (NAC) has shown proven efficacy as an antidote for acetaminophen (APAP) poisoning and APAP-induced liver failure for early presenters. The current evidence of benefits of NAC for late presenters is controversial because of the poor understanding of the mechanism of late toxicity. In the previous issue of Critical Care, Yang and colleagues use a mouse model to demonstrate that NAC in doses similar to those used therapeutically to treat APAP poisoning in humans impairs liver regenerative capacity and that the effect is more pronounced when administered for a longer duration. Studies based on cell cultures support this evidence. Cytokine and growth factor signalling pathways are recognised to be involved in the process of liver regeneration and apoptosis. This research paper generates several issues related to the future management of APAP-induced liver failure and research into the mechanism of toxicity, especially of late toxicity.
The paper entitled 'Prolonged treatment with N-acetylcysteine delays liver recovery from acetaminophen hepatotoxicity' by Yang and colleagues , published in the previous issue of Critical Care, demonstrates that prolonged administration of N-acetylcysteine (NAC) at 100 mg/kg in acetaminophen (APAP)-induced liver failure in mice potentially limits hepatocellular regeneration. Activation of a transcription factor, nuclear factor-kappa-B (NF-κB), strongly linked to impairment of liver regeneration, is a putative mechanism for this. Furthermore, the paper postulates that high doses of NAC may interfere with normal metabolic processes of the liver, leading to impairment of its regenerative capacity .
N-acetylcysteine in acetaminophen poisoning and acetaminophen-induced liver failure
NAC has been used since the 1970s, and it effectively manages APAP poisoning by glutathione repletion if administered within 8 to 10 hours of ingestion of the overdose . In later years, clinical use of NAC was extended to patients who present more than 10 hours after ingestion and to those with APAP-induced acute liver failure (ALF), and patients in such categories are routinely on NAC infusions for many days, even weeks [3, 4]. The putative protective mechanisms of NAC in late-APAP poisoning and APAP-induced liver failure remain poorly characterised but include free-radical scavenging, hemodynamic, and cytokine effects [1, 5, 6]. Concern has been expressed relating to its extended use in late presenters with APAP poisoning and APAP-induced liver failure because of the possibility of changed kinetics of NAC in liver injury, reduced efficacy, and adverse hemodynamic changes (vasodilatation and increased cardiac index) . This new study raises the issue of whether impairment of regeneration is also a clinical concern for extended NAC use.
Cytokines and liver regeneration
A key issue in liver recovery after any acute injury is tissue repair and regeneration. Such liver regeneration involves replication of mature parenchyma and non-parenchyma liver cells, which requires multiple cytokine and growth factor signalling pathways, including tumour necrosis factor-alpha, interleukin-6, hepatocyte growth factor (HGF), and transforming growth factor-alpha [8, 9]. Inhibition of the transcription factor NF-κB was shown to be associated with impaired liver regeneration and apoptosis of hepatocytes . NF-κB is also demonstrated to be responsible for regulation of transcription of a cell cycle regulator cyclin D1 .
Other evidence of N-acetylcysteine effects on liver regeneration
This new study in a mouse model demonstrates that NAC, in doses similar to those used therapeutically to treat APAP poisoning in humans , impairs liver regenerative capacity and that the effect is more pronounced when administered for a longer duration (that is, 72 versus 24 hours). The histopathological evidence of this effect was supported by the reduced NF-κB DNA binding in liver and decreased expression of cyclin D1 . It is noteworthy that NAC acting on APAP-treated human hepatoma-derived cell HepG2 cell cultures was shown to have a protective effect against APAP-induced oxidative damage but not from apoptosis . This evidence does support the findings of Yang and colleagues , despite the species differences that could contribute to APAP and NAC metabolic pathways.
Issues related to clinical practice
The current clinical literature recommends the prolonged administration of NAC in patients with APAP-induced ALF and in those who present late for medical care until evidence of improvement of the international normalised ratio or transplantation takes place . In this backdrop, the evidence by Yang and colleagues raises two issues with respect to prolonged use of NAC: first, whether prolonged NAC use is potentially harmful by reducing liver regeneration in patients presenting late with APAP poisoning, especially in those with APAP-induced ALF, and second, the issue of appropriate dosing and duration of NAC treatment. The concept of tailor-making NAC therapy to the APAP-poisoned patient has been raised recently in the literature [14, 15], and differing protocols of NAC infusion are starting to be evaluated [16, 17], albeit with study limitations .
Future research and patient management
Future research on APAP-induced ALF patients could be in the direction of monitoring for biomarkers (for example, sFas and HGF)  for liver regeneration or apoptosis in order to establish whether there is a 'tipping point' of risk/benefit after which NAC infusion might be stopped. Further research is also required to fully evaluate the impact of NAC on cytokine systems controlling hepatocellular recovery. In the management of late presenters with APAP poisoning and APAP-induced liver failure, clinicians may have to consider individual case scenarios in tailor-making duration and dose of NAC therapy.
acute liver failure
hepatocyte growth factor
Yang R, Miki K, He X, Killeen ME, Fink MP: Prolonged treatment with N -acetylcysteine delays liver recovery from acetaminophen hepatotoxicity. Crit Care 2009, 13: R55. 10.1186/cc7782
Prescott LF, Park J, Ballantyne A, Adriaenssens P, Proudfoot AT: Treatment of paracetamol (acetaminophen) poisoning with N -acetylcysteine. Lancet 1977, 2: 432-434. 10.1016/S0140-6736(77)90612-2
Harrison PM, Keays R, Bray GP, Alexander GJ, Williams R: Improved outcome of paracetamol-induced fulminant hepatic failure by late administration of acetylcysteine. Lancet 1990, 335: 1572-1573. 10.1016/0140-6736(90)91388-Q
Harrison PM, Wendon JA, Gimson AE, Alexander GJ, Williams R: Improvement by acetylcysteine of hemodynamics and oxygen transport in fulminant hepatic failure. N Engl J Med 1991, 324: 1852-1857.
Dambach DM, Durham SK, Laskin JD, Laskin DL: Distinct roles of NF-kappaB p50 in the regulation of acetaminophen-induced inflammatory mediator production and hepatotoxicity. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol 2006, 211: 157-165. 10.1016/j.taap.2005.06.024
Adamson GM, Harman AW: Oxidative stress in cultured hepatocytes exposed to acetaminophen. Biochem Pharmacol 1993, 45: 2289-2294. 10.1016/0006-2952(93)90201-7
Jones AL: Mechanism of action and value of N -acetylcysteine in the treatment of early and late acetaminophen poisoning: a critical review. J Toxicol Clin Toxicol 1998, 36: 277-285.
Taub R: Liver regeneration: from myth to mechanism. Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol 2004, 5: 836-847. 10.1038/nrm1489
Rutherford A, Chung RT: Acute liver failure: mechanisms of hepatocyte injury and regeneration. Semin Liver Dis 2008, 28: 167-74. 10.1055/s-2008-1073116
Markiewski MM, DeAngelis RA, Lambris JD: Liver inflammation and regeneration: Two distinct biological phenomena or parallel pathophysiologic processes? Mol Immunol 2006, 43: 45-56. 10.1016/j.molimm.2005.06.019
Hinz M, Krappmann D, Eichten A, Heder A, Scheidereit C, Strauss M: NF-kappa B function in growth control: regulation of cyclin D1 expression and G 0 /G 1 -to-S-phase transition. Mol Cell Biol 1999, 19: 2690-2698.
Manov I, Hirsh M, Iancu TC: N -acetylcysteine does not protect HepG2 cells against acetaminophen-induced apoptosis. Basic Clin Pharmacol Toxicol 2004, 94: 213-225.
Daly FF, Fountain JS, Murray L, Graudins A, Buckley NA: Guidelines for the management of paracetamol poisoning in Australia and New Zealand – explanation and elaboration: a consensus statement from clinical toxicologists consulting to the Australasian poisons information centres. Med J Aust 2008, 188: 296-301.
Dart RC, Rumack BH: Patient-tailored acetylcysteine administration. Ann Emerg Med 2007, 50: 280-281. 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2007.01.015
Tsai CL, Chang WT, Weng TI, Fang CC, Walson PD: A patient-tailored N -acetylcysteine protocol for acute acetaminophen intoxication. Clin Ther 2005, 27: 336-341. 10.1016/j.clinthera.2005.03.002
Kerr F, Dawson A, Whyte IM, Buckley N, Murray L, Graudins A, Chan B, Trudinger B: The Australasian Clinical Toxicology Investigators Collaboration Randomized Trial of different loading infusion rates of N -acetylcysteine. Ann Emerg Med 2005, 45: 402-408. 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2004.08.040
Whyte IM, Francis B, Dawson AH: Safety and efficacy of intravenous N -acetylcysteine for acetaminophen overdose: analysis of the Hunter Area Toxicology Service (HATS) database. Curr Med Res Opin 2007, 23: 2359-2368. 10.1185/030079907X219715
Gawarammana IB, Greene SL, Dargan PI, Jones AL: Australian Clinical Toxicology Investigators Collaboration randomized trial of different loading infusion rates of N -acetylcysteine. Ann Emerg Med 2006, 47: 124. 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2005.07.023
Rutherford AE, Hynan LS, Borges CB, Forcione DG, Blackard JT, Lin W, Gorman AR, Shaikh OS, Reuben A, Harrison E, Reddy KR, Le WM, Chung RT, ALF Study Group: Serum apoptosis markers in acute liver failure: a pilot study. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol 2007, 5: 1477-1483. 10.1016/j.cgh.2007.08.007
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
About this article
Cite this article
Athuraliya, T.N.C., Jones, A.L. Prolonged N-acetylcysteine therapy in late acetaminophen poisoning associated with acute liver failure – a need to be more cautious?. Crit Care 13, 144 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1186/cc7800
- Hepatocyte Growth Factor
- Liver Regeneration
- Acute Liver Failure
- Growth Factor Signalling Pathway