Cultures of chick-embryo hepatocytes were used to study the mechanism by which 3,4,3′,4′-tetrachlorobiphenyl and 2,4,5,3′,4′-pentabromobiphenyl cause accumulation of uroporphyrin. In a previous paper, an isoenzyme of cytochrome P-450 induced by 3-methylcholanthrene had been implicated in this process [Sinclair, Bement, Bonkovsky & Sinclair (1984) Biochem. J. 222, 737-748]. Cells treated with 3,4,3′,4′-tetrachlorobiphenyl and 5-aminolaevulinate accumulated uroporphyrin and heptacarboxyporphyrin, whereas similarly treated cells accumulated protoporphyrin immediately after piperonyl butoxide was added. Piperonyl butoxide also restored haem synthesis as detected by incorporation of radioactive 5-aminolaevulinate into haem, and decrease in drug-induced 5-aminolaevulinate synthase activity. The restoration of synthesis of protoporphyrin and haem by piperonyl butoxide was not affected by addition of cycloheximide, indicating recovery was probably not due to protein synthesis de novo. Piperonyl butoxide also reversed uroporphyrin accumulation caused by 3,4,5,3′,4′,5′-hexachlorobiphenyl, mixtures of other halogenated biphenyls, lindane, parathion, nifedipine and verapamil. The effect of piperonyl butoxide was probably not due to inhibition of metabolism of these compounds, since the hexachlorobiphenyl was scarcely metabolized. Other methylenedioxyphenyl compounds, as well as ellipticine and acetylaminofluorene, also reversed the uroporphyrin accumulation caused by 3,4,3′,4′-tetrachlorobiphenyl. SKF-525A (2-dimethylaminoethyl-2,2-diphenyl valerate) did not reverse the uroporphyrin accumulation caused by the halogenated biphenyls, but did reverse that caused by phenobarbital and propylisopropylacetamide. We conclude that the mechanism of the uroporphyrin accumulation cannot be due to covalent binding of activated metabolites of halogenated compounds to uroporphyrinogen decarboxylase.

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