Iron, oxygen, and the pulmonary circulation

J Appl Physiol (1985). 2015 Dec 15;119(12):1421-31. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00179.2015. Epub 2015 Jun 11.


The human pulmonary vasculature vasoconstricts in response to a reduction in alveolar oxygen tension, a phenomenon termed hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction (HPV). This review describes the time course of this behavior, which occurs in distinct phases, and then explores the importance for HPV of the hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) pathway. Next, the HIF-hydroxylase enzymes that act as molecular oxygen sensors within the HIF pathway are discussed. These enzymes are particularly sensitive to intracellular iron availability, which confers iron-sensing properties on the HIF pathway. Human studies of iron chelation and supplementation are then reviewed. These demonstrate that the iron sensitivity of the HIF pathway evident from in vitro experiments is relevant to human pulmonary vascular physiology. Next, the importance of iron status in high-altitude illness and chronic cardiopulmonary disease is explored, and the therapeutic potential of intravenous iron discussed. The review concludes by highlighting some further complexities that arise from interactions between the HIF pathway and other intracellular iron-sensing mechanisms.

Keywords: high-altitude illness; hypoxia; hypoxia-inducible factor; hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction; iron.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Altitude Sickness / physiopathology
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia / metabolism*
  • Hypoxia / physiopathology*
  • Iron / metabolism*
  • Oxygen Consumption*
  • Pulmonary Circulation*
  • Vasoconstriction


  • Iron