Non-erythroid functions of erythropoietin

Adv Exp Med Biol. 2003;543:323-30. doi: 10.1007/978-1-4419-8997-0_22.


The oxygen-dependent, renal cytokine eythropoietin (Epo) is well known to increase red cell production. Binding of Epo to the Epo receptor (EpoR) represses apoptosis of erythroid progenitor cells, thereby allowing their final maturation. We and others showed that Epo and its receptor are expressed in many other tissues, including brain, spinal cord, retina and testis. The presence of a blood barrier suggests that Epo plays a local role in these organs. Indeed, therapeutically applied or hypoxically induced Epo has been shown to reduce the infarct volume in various stroke animal models, to prevent retinal degeneration, and to ameliorate spinal cord injury. In a study conducted by Ehrenreich and colleagues, stroke patients treated with Epo showed reduced infarct volume, fast neurological recovery and improved clinical outcome. In analogy to its function on erythroid progenitor cells, this neuroprotective effect of Epo might be explained by repression of programmed cell death. Apart from neuroprotection, there is an assumption that Epo present in breast milk has the potential to protect against mother-to-infant transmission of HIV. When using Epo at high doses for longer time periods; however, care has to be taken to control the resulting chronic polycythemia that most probably caused enlarged cerebral infarct volumes in a transgenic mouse model that due to Epo-overexpression reached hematocrit levels of about 0.8. Overall, these data strongly support the notion that Epo will soon find new applications in the clinic.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blood-Brain Barrier
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain Injuries / prevention & control
  • Erythropoietin / adverse effects
  • Erythropoietin / physiology*
  • Erythropoietin / therapeutic use
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / prevention & control
  • HIV Infections / transmission
  • Humans
  • Infectious Disease Transmission, Vertical / prevention & control
  • Ischemia / drug therapy
  • Ischemia / prevention & control
  • Male
  • Polycythemia / chemically induced
  • Pregnancy
  • Receptors, Erythropoietin / metabolism
  • Recombinant Proteins
  • Retinal Vessels / drug effects
  • Spinal Cord Ischemia / drug therapy
  • Spinal Cord Ischemia / prevention & control
  • Stroke / drug therapy


  • Receptors, Erythropoietin
  • Recombinant Proteins
  • Erythropoietin