Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology, University of Toronto, 1 King's College Circle, Toronto M5S 1A8, Canada; Department of Medicine, Division of Liver Diseases, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, 1 Gustave L. Levy Place, New York 10029, USA. Electronic address: [Email]
Aromatic amines are an important class of human carcinogens found ubiquitously in our environment. It is estimated that 1 in 8 of all known or suspected human carcinogens is or can be converted into an aromatic amine, making the elucidation of their mechanisms of toxicity a top public health priority. Decades of research into aromatic amine carcinogenesis revealed a complex bioactivation process where Phase I and Phase II drug metabolizing enzymes catalyze N-oxidation and subsequent conjugation reactions generating the highly electrophilic nitrenium intermediate that reacts with and forms adducts on cellular macromolecules. Although aromatic amine-DNA adducts were believed to be the main driver of cancer formation, several studies have reported a lack of correlation between levels of DNA adducts and tumors. Using genetically modified mouse models, our laboratory and others observed several instances where levels of conventionally measured DNA adducts failed to correlate with liver tumor incidence following exposure to the model aromatic amine procarcinogen 4-aminobiphenyl. In this review we first provide a historical overview of the studies that led to a proposed mechanism of carcinogenesis caused by aromatic amines, where their bioactivation to form DNA adducts represents the central driver of this process. We then highlight recent mechanistic studies using 4-aminobiphenyl that are inconsistent with this mechanism which suggest novel drivers of aromatic amine carcinogenesis.