N-acetylcysteine (NAC) differentially affects arterial medial calcification and bone formation: The role of l-cysteine and hydrogen sulphide

LE Bourne, JJ Patel, BK Davies, E Neven, A Verhulst, PC D'Haese, CPD Wheeler-Jones, IR Orriss

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Arterial medial calcification (AMC) is the deposition of calcium phosphate in the arteries. AMC is widely thought to share similarities with physiological bone formation; however, emerging evidence suggests several key differences between these processes. N-acetylcysteine (NAC) displays antioxidant properties and can generate hydrogen sulphide (H2S) and glutathione (GSH) from its deacetylation to l-cysteine. This study found that NAC exerts divergent effects in vitro, increasing osteoblast differentiation and bone formation by up to 5.5-fold but reducing vascular smooth muscle cell (VSMC) calcification and cell death by up to 80%. In vivo, NAC reduced AMC in a site-specific manner by 25% but had no effect on the bone. The actions of l-cysteine and H2S mimicked those of NAC; however, the effects of H2S were much less efficacious than NAC and l-cysteine. Pharmacological inhibition of H2S-generating enzymes did not alter the actions of NAC or l-cysteine; endogenous production of H2S was also unaffected. In contrast, NAC and l-cysteine increased GSH levels in calcifying VSMCs and osteoblasts by up to 3-fold. This suggests that the beneficial actions of NAC are likely to be mediated via the breakdown of l-cysteine and the subsequent GSH generation. Together, these data show that while the molecular mechanisms driving the actions of NAC appear similar, the downstream effects on cell function differ significantly between osteoblasts and calcifying VSMCs. The ability of NAC to exert these differential actions further supports the notion that there are differences between the development of pathological AMC and physiological bone formation. NAC could represent a therapeutic option for treating AMC without exerting negative effects on bone.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1070-1086
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Cellular Physiology
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 17 Oct 2021


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