Researchers at the University of Edinburgh have studied the impact of the painkiller on liver cells in human and mouse tissue.
Their tests showed that in certain settings, paracetamol intake can damage the liver by harming the vital structural connections between adjacent cells in the organ.
When these cell wall connections – known as tight junctions – are disrupted, the liver tissue structure is damaged. The cells may then be unable to function properly and may die.
This type of cell damage is known to occur in liver conditions including hepatitis, cirrhosis, and cancer, but it was not linked to paracetamol toxicity until now.
“Paracetamol is the world’s preferred pain remedy – it is cheap, and considered safe and effective at therapeutic dose,” said study co-author Dr Leonard Nelson. “However, drug-induced liver damage remains an important clinical problem and a challenge for developing safer drugs. Our findings reinforce the need for vigilance in paracetamol use, and could help discover how harm caused by its adverse use might be prevented.”
Researchers now hope to develop a trustworthy method of using human liver cells rather than animal testing.
They will then plan to examine how varying paracetamol doses and timescales influence toxicity in the liver, and identify potential targets for new drugs.
Co-author Pierre Bagnaninchi, of the university's MRC Centre for Regenerative Medicine, added: "Although liver damage caused by paracetamol toxicity has been the subject of intense study for 40 years, recent developments in biosensor technology are enabling a fuller picture of the biological mechanisms involved."
The full study has been published in journal Scientific Reports.
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