The suitability of hepatocyte culture models to study various aspects of drug metabolism

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Andreas K. Nussler
Aiguo Wang
Peter Neuhaus
Judith Fisher
Jing Yuan
Liegang Liu
Katrin Zeilinger
Jorg Gerlach
Peter J. Arnold
Wolfgang Albrecht


Since the liver is the main organ involved in the metabolism and the toxicity of xenobiotics, isolated rat hepatocytes have been increasingly used in recent years as a model to identify pharmacological and toxicological responses of drugs. However, it is generally recognised that isolated hepatocytes retain most of their functions only for a short period. For this reason, numerous models and techniques have been developed to study and improve the metabolic capacity of hepatocytes in vitro over an extended time period and in application for drug metabolism studies. In the present study, we compared four different cell culture models to fulfill these requirements and have therefore harvested hepatocytes and cultured them in different culture systems over two weeks. In order to prove certain advantages or disadvantages of each model, we compared the metabolic capacity, albumin secretion, the release of cytosolic and mitochondrial enzymes, as well as the capacity to metabolise diclofenac (DF).
We found that rat hepatocytes in all studied culture models (except the Unisyn Bioreactor) were able to metabolise DF to the same extent as found in vivo. However, the concentration of metabolites was found to decrease with culture time using the monolayer although the DF metabolite level in the collagen Sandwich culture was higher than that of the monolayer culture. The 3D-membrane bioreactor preserved the metabolic capacity for a prolonged period of time. The concentrations of DF metabolites in the Unisyn hollow fiber bioreactor were below the detection limit, which corresponded to other parameters such as albumin secretion and cytochrome P450 activity, disqualifying this culture system clearly for the use of in vitro primary hepatocyte cultures. The other three systems all have their place in drug metabolism with different advantages. However, our studies clearly showed that hepatocytes cultured within a collagen sandwich or in the 3D-membrane bioreactor qualify to study various aspects of drug metabolisms over a long time period. Further studies are needed to prove if the later two culture models may really help to reduce animal testing.

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Nussler, A. K., Wang, A., Neuhaus, P., Fisher, J., Yuan, J., Liu, L., Zeilinger, K., Gerlach, J., Arnold, P. J. and Albrecht, W. (2001) “The suitability of hepatocyte culture models to study various aspects of drug metabolism”, ALTEX - Alternatives to animal experimentation, 18(2), pp. 91–101. Available at: (Accessed: 18 August 2022).

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