The objectives of this study were twofold: (i) to determine the mechanism(s) of Senecio-induced toxicity in human hepatoblastoma cells (HepG2) in vitro and whether such toxicity could be prevented using N-acetyl-cysteine (NAC), and (ii) to evaluate whether caspases are involved in Senecio-induced apoptosis. Cells were treated with aqueous extracts of Senecio (10 mg x mL-1) with and without NAC. Cytotoxicity was determined by using the MTT assay. Total glutathione (GSH) was measured by using the Tietze assay. Cells were also treated with aqueous extracts of Senecio in the presence or absence of 50 micromol/L caspase-3 inhibitor (IDN) for 24 h. Apoptosis was determined by transmission electron microscopy, and DNA fragmentation was determined by ELISA and terminal dUTP nick-end labelling (TUNEL). Senecio produced cytotoxicity and depleted GSH in a concentration- and time-dependent manner. A significant depletion in GSH was observed after 15 min (p < 0.001 vs. control), whereas significant cytotoxicity was only observed after 3 h (p < 0.001 vs. control). Treatment with NAC prevented Senecio-induced GSH depletion and resulted in a significant decrease in Senecio-induced cytotoxicity (p < 0.001 vs. NAC-untreated cells). Treatment with Senecio for 24 h resulted in 22% +/- 2.5% (p < 0.001) apoptosis (vs. control). Pretreatment with 50 mumol caspase inhibitor reduced Senecio-induced apoptosis significantly (vs. non-exposed to IDN) (12% +/- 1.5%; p < 0.05). Our results suggest the mechanism of Senecio-induced cytotoxicity in HepG2 cells in vitro involves depletion of cellular GSH. Cytotoxicity is reduced by supplementation with NAC, which thus prevents GSH depletion. Caspase activation is involved in Senecio-induced apoptosis.
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