Humans in industrialized areas are continuously exposed to phthalate plasticizers, prompting concerns of their potential toxicities. Previous studies from our laboratory and others have shown that various phthalates activate several mammalian nuclear receptors, in particular the constitutive androstane receptor (CAR), the pregnane X receptor (PXR), and the peroxisomal proliferator-activated receptors (PPARs), although often at concentration levels of questionable relevance to human exposure. We discovered that di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) and di-isononyl phthalate (DiNP), two of the highest volume production agents, were potent activators of human CAR2 (hCAR2), a unique human CAR splice variant and, to a lesser degree, human PXR (hPXR). These diphthalates undergo rapid metabolism in mammalian systems, initially to their major monophthalate derivatives MEHP and MiNP. Although MEHP and MiNP are reported activators of the rodent PPARs, with lower affinities for the corresponding human PPARs, it remains unclear whether these monophthalate metabolites activate hCAR2 or hPXR. In this investigation, we assessed the relative activation potential of selected monophthalates and other low molecular weight phthalates against hCAR, the most prominent hCAR splice variants, as well as hPXR and human PPAR. Using transactivation and mammalian two-hybrid protein interaction assays, we demonstrate that these substances indeed activate hCARs and hPXR but to varying degrees. MEHP and MiNP exhibit potent activation of hCAR2 and hPXR with higher affinities for these receptors than for the hPPARs. The rank order potency for MEHP and MiNP was hCAR2 > hPXR > hPPARs. Results from primary hepatocyte experiments also reflect the MEHP and MiNP upregulation of the respective human target genes. We conclude that both di- and monophthalates are potently selective hCAR2 activators and effective hPXR activators. These results implicate these targets as important mediators of selective phthalate effects in humans. The striking differential affinities for these compounds between human and rodent nuclear receptors further implies that biological results obtained from rodent models may be of only limited relevance for interpolating phthalate-mediated effects in humans.
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