Complement activation by heme as a secondary hit for atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome

Blood. 2013 Jul 11;122(2):282-92. doi: 10.1182/blood-2013-03-489245. Epub 2013 May 21.


Atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome (aHUS) is characterized by genetic and acquired abnormalities of the complement system leading to alternative pathway (AP) overactivation and by glomerular endothelial damage, thrombosis, and mechanical hemolysis. Mutations per se are not sufficient to induce aHUS, and nonspecific primary triggers are required for disease manifestation. We investigated whether hemolysis-derived heme contributes to aHUS pathogenesis. We confirmed that heme activates complement AP in normal human serum, releasing C3a, C5a, and sC5b9. We demonstrated that heme-exposed endothelial cells also activate the AP, resulting in cell-bound C3 and C5b9. This was exacerbated in aHUS by genetic abnormalities associated with AP overactivation. Heme interacted with C3 close to the thioester bond, induced homophilic C3 complexes, and promoted formation of an overactive C3/C5 convertase. Heme induced decreased membrane cofactor protein (MCP) and decay-accelerating factor (DAF) expression on endothelial cells, giving Factor H (FH) a major role in complement regulation. Finally, heme promoted a rapid exocytosis of Weibel-Palade bodies, with membrane expression of P-selectin known to bind C3b and trigger the AP, and the release of the prothrombotic von Willebrand factor. These results strongly suggest that hemolysis-derived heme represents a common secondary hit amplifying endothelial damage and thrombosis in aHUS.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Atypical Hemolytic Uremic Syndrome
  • Cell Line
  • Cell Membrane / immunology
  • Cell Membrane / metabolism
  • Complement Activation / immunology*
  • Complement C3 / chemistry
  • Complement C3 / genetics
  • Complement C3 / immunology
  • Complement C3 / metabolism
  • Complement C3-C5 Convertases / metabolism
  • Complement C3b / immunology
  • Complement C3b / metabolism
  • Complement Pathway, Alternative / immunology
  • Endothelial Cells / immunology
  • Endothelial Cells / metabolism
  • Heme / chemistry
  • Heme / immunology*
  • Heme / metabolism
  • Hemolytic-Uremic Syndrome / immunology*
  • Hemolytic-Uremic Syndrome / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Mutation
  • P-Selectin / metabolism
  • Protein Binding / immunology


  • Complement C3
  • P-Selectin
  • Heme
  • Complement C3b
  • Complement C3-C5 Convertases