Endothelial-cell heme uptake from heme proteins: Induction of sensitization and desensitization to oxidant damage

J. Balla, H. S. Jacob, G. Balla, K. Nath, J. W. Eaton, G. M. Vercellotti

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Iron-derived reactive oxygen species are implicated in the pathogenesis of various vascular disorders including atherosclerosis, vasculitis, and reperfusion injury. The present studies examine whether heme, when liganded to physiologically relevant proteins as in hemoglobin, can provide potentially damaging iron to intact endothelium. We demonstrate that reduced ferrohemoglobin, while relatively innocuous to cultured endothelial cells, when oxidized to ferrihemoglobin (methemoglobin), greatly amplifies oxidant (H2O2)-mediated endothelial-cell injury. Drawing upon our previous observation that free heme similarly primes endothelium for oxidant damage, we posited that methemoglobin, but not ferrohemoglobin, releases its hemes that can then be incorporated into endothelial cells. In support, cultured endothelial cells exposed to methemoglobin - in contrast to exposure to ferrohemoglobin, cytochrome c, or metmyoglobin - rapidly increased their heme oxygenase mRNA and enzyme activity, thereby supporting heme uptake; ferritin production was also markedly increased after such exposure, thus attesting to eventual incorporation of Fe. These cellular methemoglobin effects were inhibited by the heme-scavenging protein hemopexin and by haptoglobin or cyanide, agents that strengthen the liganding between heme and globin. If the endothelium is exposed to methemoglobin for a more prolonged period (16 hr), it accumulates large amounts of ferritin; concomitantly, and presumably associated with iron sequestration by this protein, the endothelium converts from hypersusceptible to hyperresistant to oxidative damage. We conclude that when oxidation of hemoglobin facilitates release of its heme groups, catalytically active iron is provided to neighboring tissue environments. The effect of this relinquished heme on the vasculature is determined both by extracellular factors - i.e., plasma proteins, such as haptoglobin and hemopexin - as well as intracellular factors, including heme oxygenase and ferritin. Acutely, if both extra- and intracellular defenses are overwhelmed, cellular toxicity arises; chronically, when ferritin is induced, resistance to oxidative injury may supervene.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9285-9289
Number of pages5
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number20
StatePublished - Oct 15 1993


  • Endothelium
  • Ferritin
  • Heme oxygenase


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