The Journal of investigative dermatology

Monobenzyl ether of hydroquinone and 4-tertiary butyl phenol activate markedly different physiological responses in melanocytes: relevance to skin depigmentation.

PMID 19657355


Monobenzyl ether of hydroquinone (MBEH) is a Food and Drug Administration approved drug used for depigmentation therapy of advanced vitiligo. Here, the working mechanism of MBEH is explored in comparison to 4-tertiary butyl phenol (4-TBP), a known causative agent for occupational vitiligo mediating apoptotic melanocytic death. Cytotoxic experiments reveal that similar to 4-TBP, MBEH induces specific melanocyte death. To compare death pathways initiated by 4-TBP and MBEH, classical apoptotic hallmarks were evaluated in treated melanocytes. MBEH induced cell death without activating the caspase cascade or DNA fragmentation, showing that the death pathway is non-apoptotic. Release of High Mobility Group Box-1 protein by MBEH-treated melanocytes and ultrastructural features further confirmed a necrotic death pathway mediated by MBEH. A negative correlation between MBEH-induced cell death and cellular melanin content supports a cytoprotective role for melanin. Moreover, MBEH exposure upregulated the levels of melanogenic enzymes in cultured melanocytes and skin explants, whereas 4-TBP reduced the expression of the same. In summary, exposure to MBEH or 4-TBP has profoundly different consequences for melanocyte physiology and activates different death pathways. As the mode of cell death defines the nature of the immune response that follows, these findings help to explain the relative efficacy of these agents in mediating depigmentation.