Peroxisome proliferators (PPs) are chemicals of industrial and pharmaceutical importance that elicit liver carcinogenesis by a non-genotoxic mechanism. One of the intriguing properties of PPs is that the pleiotropic effects of these compounds (including increased DNA synthesis and peroxisome proliferation) are seen in rats and mice only, but not humans. It is important to determine the risks to humans of environmental and therapeutic exposure to these compounds by understanding the mechanisms of non-genotoxic hepatocarcinogenesis in rodents. To understand this apparent lack of human susceptibility, attention has focused on the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor alpha (PPARalpha), which appears to mediate the effects of PPs in rodents. It is also known to mediate the hypolipidaemic effects that fibrate drugs exert on humans with elevated plasma cholesterol and triglyceride levels. Human PPARalphas share many functional characteristics with the rodent receptors, in that they can be transcriptionally activated by PPs and regulate specific gene expression. However, one key difference is that PPARalpha is less abundant in human than in rodent liver, which has led to the suggestion that species differences result from quantitative differences in gene expression. In this review we describe the effects of PPs and what is known of the molecular mechanisms of action and species differences with respect to rodents and man. Attention will be given to differences in the amounts of PPARalpha between species as well as the 'qualitative' aspects of PPARalpha-mediated gene regulation which might also explain the activation of some genes and not of others in human liver by PPs.
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