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Zuotai is composed mainly of β-HgS, while cinnabar mainly contains α-HgS. Both forms of HgS are used in traditional medicines and their safety is of concern. This study aimed to compare the hepatotoxicity potential of Zuotai and α-HgS with mercury chloride (HgCl2) and methylmercury (MeHg) in mice. Mice were orally administrated with Zuotai (30 mg/kg), α-HgS (HgS, 30 mg/kg), HgCl2 (33.6 mg/kg), or CH3HgCl (3.1 mg/kg) for 7 days, and liver injury and gene expressions related to toxicity, inflammation and Nrf2 were examined. Animal body weights were decreased by HgCl2 and to a less extent by MeHg. HgCl2 and MeHg produced spotted hepatocyte swelling and inflammation, while such lesions are mild in Zuotai and HgS-treated mice. Liver Hg contents reached 45-70 ng/mg in HgCl2 and MeHg groups; but only 1-2 ng/mg in Zuotai and HgS groups. HgCl2 and MeHg increased the expression of liver injury biomarker genes metallothionein-1 (MT-1) and heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1); the inflammation biomarkers early growth response gene (Egr1), glutathione S-transferase (Gst-mu), chemokine (mKC) and microphage inflammatory protein (MIP-2), while these changes were insignificant in Zuotai and HgS groups. However, all mercury compounds were able to increase the Nrf2 pathway genesNAD(P)H: quinone oxidoreductase 1 (Nqo1) and Glutamate-cysteine ligase, catalytic subunit (Gclc). In conclusion, the Tibetan medicine Zuotai and HgS are less hepatotoxic than HgCl2 and MeHg, and differ from HgCl2 and MeHg in hepatic Hg accumulation and toxicological responses.

Background. The circadian clock is involved in drug metabolism, efficacy and toxicity. Drugs could in turn affect the biological clock as a mechanism of their actions. Zuotai is an essential component of many popular Tibetan medicines for sedation, tranquil and "detoxification," and is mainly composed of metacinnabar (β-HgS). The pharmacological and/or toxicological basis of its action is unknown. This study aimed to examine the effect of Zuotai on biological clock gene expression in the liver of mice. Materials and methods. Mice were orally given Zuotai (10 mg/kg, 1.5-fold of clinical dose) daily for 7 days, and livers were collected every 4 h during the 24 h period. Total RNA was extracted and subjected to real-time RT-PCR analysis of circadian clock gene expression. Results. Zuotai decreased the oscillation amplitude of the clock core gene Clock, neuronal PAS domain protein 2 (Npas2), Brain and muscle Arnt-like protein-1 (Bmal1) at 10:00. For the clock feedback negative control genes, Zuotai had no effect on the oscillation of the clock gene Cryptochrome (Cry1) and Period genes (Per1-3). For the clock-driven target genes, Zuotai increased the oscillation amplitude of the PAR-bZip family member D-box-binding protein (Dbp), decreased nuclear factor interleukin 3 (Nfil3) at 10:00, but had no effect on thyrotroph embryonic factor (Tef); Zuotai increased the expression of nuclear receptor Rev-Erbα (Nr1d1) at 18:00, but had little influence on the nuclear receptor Rev-Erbβ (Nr1d2) and RORα. Conclusion. The Tibetan medicine Zuotai could influence the expression of clock genes, which could contribute to pharmacological and/or toxicological effects of Zuotai.

Mercury sulfides are used in Ayurvedic medicines, Tibetan medicines, and Chinese medicines for thousands of years and are still used today. Cinnabar (α-HgS) and metacinnabar (β-HgS) are different from mercury chloride (HgCl2) and methylmercury (MeHg) in their disposition and toxicity. Whether such scenario applies to weanling and aged animals is not known. To address this question, weanling (21d) and aged (450d) rats were orally given Zuotai (54% β-HgS, 30mg/kg), HgS (α-HgS, 30mg/kg), HgCl2 (34.6mg/kg), or MeHg (MeHgCl, 3.2mg/kg) for 7days. Accumulation of Hg in kidney and liver, and the toxicity-sensitive gene expressions were examined. Animal body weight gain was decreased by HgCl2 and to a lesser extent by MeHg, but unaltered after Zuotai and HgS. HgCl2 and MeHg produced dramatic tissue Hg accumulation, increased kidney (kim-1 and Ngal) and liver (Ho-1) injury-sensitive gene expressions, but such changes are absent or mild after Zuotai and HgS. Aged rats were more susceptible than weanling rats to Hg toxicity. To examine roles of transporters in Hg accumulation, transporter gene expressions were examined. The expression of renal uptake transporters Oat1, Oct2, and Oatp4c1 and hepatic Oatp2 was decreased, while the expression of renal efflux transporter Mrp2, Mrp4 and Mdr1b was increased following HgCl2 and MeHg, but unaffected by Zuotai and HgS. Thus, Zuotai and HgS differ from HgCl2 and MeHg in producing tissue Hg accumulation and toxicity, and aged rats are more susceptible than weanling rats. Transporter expression could be adaptive means to reduce tissue Hg burden.