Context: The efficient sequestration of hemoglobin by the red blood cell membrane and the presence of multiple hemoglobin clearance mechanisms suggest a critical need to prevent the buildup of this molecule in the plasma. A growing list of clinical manifestations attributed to hemoglobin release in a variety of acquired and iatrogenic hemolytic disorders suggests that hemolysis and hemoglobinemia should be considered as a novel mechanism of human disease.
Evidence acquisition: Pertinent scientific literature databases and references were searched through October 2004 using terms that encompassed various aspects of hemolysis, hemoglobin preparations, clinical symptoms associated with plasma hemoglobin, nitric oxide in hemolysis, anemia, pulmonary hypertension, paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, and sickle-cell disease.
Evidence synthesis: Hemoglobin is released into the plasma from the erythrocyte during intravascular hemolysis in hereditary, acquired, and iatrogenic hemolytic conditions. When the capacity of protective hemoglobin-scavenging mechanisms has been saturated, levels of cell-free hemoglobin increase in the plasma, resulting in the consumption of nitric oxide and clinical sequelae. Nitric oxide plays a major role in vascular homeostasis and has been shown to be a critical regulator of basal and stress-mediated smooth muscle relaxation and vasomotor tone, endothelial adhesion molecule expression, and platelet activation and aggregation. Thus, clinical consequences of excessive cell-free plasma hemoglobin levels during intravascular hemolysis or the administration of hemoglobin preparations include dystonias involving the gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, pulmonary, and urogenital systems, as well as clotting disorders. Many of the clinical sequelae of intravascular hemolysis in a prototypic hemolytic disease, paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria, are readily explained by hemoglobin-mediated nitric oxide scavenging.
Conclusion: A growing body of evidence supports the existence of a novel mechanism of human disease, namely, hemolysis-associated smooth muscle dystonia, vasculopathy, and endothelial dysfunction.