Arterial oxygen content is precisely maintained by graded erythrocytotic responses in settings of high/normal serum iron levels, and predicts exercise capacity: an observational study of hypoxaemic patients with pulmonary arteriovenous malformations

PLoS One. 2014 Mar 17;9(3):e90777. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0090777. eCollection 2014.


Background: Oxygen, haemoglobin and cardiac output are integrated components of oxygen transport: each gram of haemoglobin transports 1.34 mls of oxygen in the blood. Low arterial partial pressure of oxygen (PaO2), and haemoglobin saturation (SaO2), are the indices used in clinical assessments, and usually result from low inspired oxygen concentrations, or alveolar/airways disease. Our objective was to examine low blood oxygen/haemoglobin relationships in chronically compensated states without concurrent hypoxic pulmonary vasoreactivity.

Methodology: 165 consecutive unselected patients with pulmonary arteriovenous malformations were studied, in 98 cases, pre/post embolisation treatment. 159 (96%) had hereditary haemorrhagic telangiectasia. Arterial oxygen content was calculated by SaO2 x haemoglobin x 1.34/100.

Principal findings: There was wide variation in SaO2 on air (78.5-99, median 95)% but due to secondary erythrocytosis and resultant polycythaemia, SaO2 explained only 0.1% of the variance in arterial oxygen content per unit blood volume. Secondary erythrocytosis was achievable with low iron stores, but only if serum iron was high-normal: Low serum iron levels were associated with reduced haemoglobin per erythrocyte, and overall arterial oxygen content was lower in iron deficient patients (median 16.0 [IQR 14.9, 17.4]mls/dL compared to 18.8 [IQR 17.4, 20.1]mls/dL, p<0.0001). Exercise tolerance appeared unrelated to SaO2 but was significantly worse in patients with lower oxygen content (p<0.0001). A pre-defined athletic group had higher Hb:SaO2 and serum iron:ferritin ratios than non-athletes with normal exercise capacity. PAVM embolisation increased SaO2, but arterial oxygen content was precisely restored by a subsequent fall in haemoglobin: 86 (87.8%) patients reported no change in exercise tolerance at post-embolisation follow-up.

Significance: Haemoglobin and oxygen measurements in isolation do not indicate the more physiologically relevant oxygen content per unit blood volume. This can be maintained for SaO2 ≥78.5%, and resets to the same arterial oxygen content after correction of hypoxaemia. Serum iron concentrations, not ferritin, seem to predict more successful polycythaemic responses.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Anemia / blood
  • Arteriovenous Malformations / complications
  • Athletes
  • Blood Gas Analysis
  • Erythrocyte Indices
  • Exercise*
  • Female
  • Hemoglobins / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia
  • Iron / blood*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Oxygen / blood*
  • Polycythemia / blood*
  • Polycythemia / etiology
  • Polycythemia / physiopathology*
  • Pulmonary Artery / abnormalities
  • Pulmonary Veins / abnormalities
  • Young Adult


  • Hemoglobins
  • Iron
  • Oxygen

Grants and funding

Funding support was received from National Institute for Health Research: London (NW) Comprehensive Local Research Network (CLS), Imperial College Biomedical Research Centre (CLS); HHT patient donations; and Imperial BSc project funding (to CLS for VS). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.