Patients with long-lasting hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection are at major risk of hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). Iron accumulation in the livers of these patients is thought to exacerbate conditions of oxidative stress. Transgenic mice that express the HCV core protein develop HCC after the steatosis stage and produce an excess of hepatic reactive oxygen species (ROS). The overproduction of ROS in the liver is the net result of HCV core protein-induced dysfunction of the mitochondrial respiratory chain. This study examined the impact of ferric nitrilacetic acid (Fe-NTA)-mediated iron overload on mitochondrial damage and ROS production in HCV core protein-expressing HepG2 (human HCC) cells (Hep39b cells). A decrease in mitochondrial membrane potential and ROS production were observed following Fe-NTA treatment. After continuous exposure to Fe-NTA for six days, cell toxicity was observed in Hep39b cells, but not in mock (vector-transfected) HepG2 cells. Moreover, mitochondrial iron ((59)Fe) uptake was increased in the livers of HCV core protein-expressing transgenic mice. This increase in mitochondrial iron uptake was inhibited by Ru360, a mitochondrial Ca(2+) uniporter inhibitor. Furthermore, the Fe-NTA-induced augmentation of mitochondrial dysfunction, ROS production, and cell toxicity were also inhibited by Ru360 in Hep39b cells. Taken together, these results indicate that Ca(2+) uniporter-mediated mitochondrial accumulation of iron exacerbates hepatocyte toxicity caused by the HCV core protein.
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