Thimerosal induces DNA breaks, caspase-3 activation, membrane damage, and cell death in cultured human neurons and fibroblasts.
Toxicol Sci. 2003 Aug ;74(2):361-8. Epub 2003 Aug 28. PMID: 12773768
David S Baskin
Thimerosal is an organic mercurial compound used as a preservative in biomedical preparations. Little is known about the reactions of human neuronal and skin cells to its micro- and nanomolar concentrations, which can occur after using thimerosal-containing products. A useful combination of fluorescent techniques for the assessment of thimerosal toxicity is introduced. Short-term thimerosal toxicity was investigated in cultured human cerebral cortical neurons and in normal human fibroblasts. Cells were incubated with 125-nM to 250-microM concentrations of thimerosal for 45 min to 24 h. A 4', 6-diamidino-2-phenylindole dihydrochloride (DAPI) dye exclusion test was used to identify nonviable cells and terminal transferase-based nick-end labeling (TUNEL) to label DNA damage. Detection of active caspase-3 was performed in live cell cultures using a cell-permeable fluorescent caspase inhibitor. The morphology of fluorescently labeled nuclei was analyzed. After 6 h of incubation, the thimerosal toxicity was observed at 2 microM based on the manual detection of the fluorescent attached cells and at a 1-microM level with the more sensitive GENios Plus Multi-Detection Microplate Reader with Enhanced Fluorescence. The lower limit did not change after 24 h of incubation. Cortical neurons demonstrated higher sensitivity to thimerosal compared to fibroblasts. The first sign of toxicity was an increase in membrane permeability to DAPI after 2 h of incubation with 250 microM thimerosal. A 6-h incubation resulted in failure to exclude DAPI, generation of DNA breaks, caspase-3 activation, and development of morphological signs of apoptosis. We demonstrate that thimerosal in micromolar concentrations rapidly induce membrane and DNA damage and initiate caspase-3-dependent apoptosis in human neurons and fibroblasts. We conclude that a proposed combination of fluorescent techniques can be useful in analyzing the toxicity of thimerosal.