We studied drug- and metal-mediated increases in activity of haem oxygenase, the rate-controlling enzyme for haem breakdown, in chick-embryo hepatocytes in ovo and in primary culture. Phenobarbitone and phenobarbitone-like drugs (glutethimide, mephenytoin), which are known to increase concentrations of an isoform of cytochrome P-450 in chick-embryo hepatocytes, were found to increase activities of haem oxygenase as well. In contrast, 20-methylcholanthrene, which increases the concentration of a different isoform of cytochrome P-450, had no effect on activity of haem oxygenase. Inhibitors of haem synthesis, 4,6-dioxoheptanoic acid or desferrioxamine, prevented drug-mediated induction of both cytochrome P-450 and haem oxygenase in embryo hepatocytes in ovo or in culture. Addition of haem restored induction of both enzymes. These results are interpreted to indicate that phenobarbitone and its congeners induce haem oxygenase by increasing hepatic haem formation. In contrast, increases in haem oxygenase activity by metals such as cobalt, cadmium and iron were not dependent on increased haem synthesis and were not inhibited by 4,6-dioxoheptanoic acid. We conclude that (1) induction of hepatic haem oxygenase activity by phenobarbitone-type drugs is due to increased haem formation, and (2) induction of haem oxygenase by drugs and metals occurs by different mechanisms.

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