Free heme toxicity and its detoxification systems in human

Toxicol Lett. 2005 Jul 4;157(3):175-88. doi: 10.1016/j.toxlet.2005.03.004. Epub 2005 Apr 7.


Severe hemolysis or myolysis occurring during pathological states, such as sickle cell disease, ischemia reperfusion, and malaria results in high levels of free heme, causing undesirable toxicity leading to organ, tissue, and cellular injury. Free heme catalyzes the oxidation, covalent cross-linking and aggregate formation of protein and its degradation to small peptides. It also catalyzes the formation of cytotoxic lipid peroxide via lipid peroxidation and damages DNA through oxidative stress. Heme being a lipophilic molecule intercalates in the membrane and impairs lipid bilayers and organelles, such as mitochondria and nuclei, and destabilizes the cytoskeleton. Heme is a potent hemolytic agent and alters the conformation of cytoskeletal protein in red cells. Free heme causes endothelial cell injury, leading to vascular inflammatory disorders and stimulates the expression of intracellular adhesion molecules. Heme acts as a pro-inflammatory molecule and heme-induced inflammation is involved in the pathology of diverse conditions; such as renal failure, arteriosclerosis, and complications after artificial blood transfusion, peritoneal endometriosis, and heart transplant failure. Heme offers severe toxic effects to kidney, liver, central nervous system and cardiac tissue. Although heme oxygenase is primarily responsible to detoxify free heme but other extra heme oxygenase systems also play a significant role to detoxify heme. A brief account of free heme toxicity and its detoxification systems along with mechanistic details are presented.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Erythrocytes / metabolism
  • Heme / metabolism*
  • Heme Oxygenase (Decyclizing) / metabolism
  • Hemin / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Oxidative Stress / physiology


  • Heme
  • Hemin
  • Heme Oxygenase (Decyclizing)