Asbestos causes DNA strand breaks in cultured pulmonary epithelial cells: Role of iron-catalyzed free radicals

D. W. Kamp*, V. A. Israbian, S. E. Preusen, C. X. Zhang, S. A. Weitzman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

110 Scopus citations


Asbestos causes pulmonary fibrosis and various malignancies by mechanisms that remain uncertain. Reactive oxygen species in part cause asbestos toxicity. However, it is not known whether asbestos-induced free radical production causes alveolar epithelial cell (AEC) cytotoxicity by inducing DNA strand breaks (DNA-SB). We tested the hypothesis that asbestos-induced AEC injury in vitro is due to iron-catalyzed free radical generation, which in turn causes DNA-SB. We found that amosite asbestos damages cultured human pulmonary epithelial-like cells (WI-26 cells) as assessed by 51Cr release and that an iron chelator, phytic acid (500 μM), attenuates these effects. A role for iron causing these effects was supported by the observation that ferric chloride-treated phytic acid did not diminish WI-26 cell injury. Production of hydroxyl radical-like species (·OH) was assessed based upon the ·OH-dependent formation of formaldehyde (HCHO) in the presence of dimethyl sulfoxide. A variety of mineral dusts induced significant levels of ·OH formation (nmol HCHO at 30 min: carbonyl iron, 85 ± 21; amosite asbestos, 14 ± 2; chrysotile asbestos, 7 ± 1; titanium dioxide, 2.5 ± 0.5). Phytic acid significantly diminished the asbestos-induced ·OH production. DNA damage to AEC was assessed by the alkaline unwinding, ethidium bromide fluorometric technique. Hydrogen peroxide caused dose- dependent DNA-SB in WI-26 cells after a 30-min exposure period [50% effective dose (ED50): 5 μM] that was similar to other cell lines. Amosite asbestos induced dose-dependent DNA-SB in WI-26, A549, and primary isolated rat alveolar type II cells maintained in culture for 7-10 days (alveolar type I- like). Lower doses of amosite (0.5-5 μg/ml or 0.25-2.5 μg/cm2) caused significant WI-26 cell DNA-SB after prolonged exposure periods (≥ 2 days). Phytic acid ameliorated DNA damage in all three cultured AEC. There was a direct correlation between mineral dust-induced ·OH production at 30 min and DNA-SB in WI-26 cells at 4 h (P < 0.0005). These data suggest that mineral dusts can be directly genotoxic to relevant target cells of asbestos, AEC. Furthermore, these results provide additional support for the premise that iron-catalyzed free radicals mediate asbestos-induced pulmonary toxicity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)L471-L480
JournalAmerican Journal of Physiology - Lung Cellular and Molecular Physiology
Issue number3 12-3
StatePublished - 1995


  • cytotoxicity
  • deoxyribonucleic acid damage
  • reactive oxygen species

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Pulmonary and Respiratory Medicine
  • Physiology (medical)
  • Cell Biology


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