Heme and the vasculature: an oxidative hazard that induces antioxidant defenses in the endothelium

Artif Cells Blood Substit Immobil Biotechnol. 1994;22(2):207-13. doi: 10.3109/10731199409117415.


Heme proteins transport oxygen and facilitate redox reactions. Heme, however, may be dangerous, especially when free in biologic systems. For example, iron released from hemoglobin-derived heme can catalyze oxidative injury to neuronal cell membranes and may be a factor in post-traumatic damage to the central nervous system. We have shown that heme catalyzes the oxidation of low density lipoproteins which can damage vascular endothelial cells. The endothelium is susceptible to damage by oxidants generated by activated phagocytes, and this has been invoked as an important mechanism in a number of pathologies including the Adulte Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS), acute tubular necrosis, reperfusion injury and atherosclerosis. Because of its highly hydrophobic nature, heme readily intercalates into endothelial membranes and potentiates oxidant-mediated damage. This injury is dependent on the iron content of heme and is completely blocked when concomitant hemopexin is added. Ferrohemoglobin, when added to cultured endothelial cells, is without deleterious effects, but if oxidized to ferrihemoglobin (methemoglobin), it greatly amplifies oxidant damage. Methemoglobin, but not ferrohemoglobin, releases its hemes which can then be incorporated into endothelial cells. Cultured endothelial cells, when exposed to methemoglobin but not ferrohemoglobin, cytochrome c or metmyoglobin, potentiate this oxidant injury. Stabilization of the methemoglobin by cyanide, haptoglobin or capture of the heme by hemopexin abrogates this effect. Paradoxically, more prolonged exposure of endothelium to heme or methemoglobin renders them remarkably resistant to oxidant challenge. Endothelium defends itself from heme by induction of the heme degrading enzyme heme oxygenase and the concomitant production of large amounts of the iron binding protein ferritin.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 250 WORDS)

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Cell Survival / physiology
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Endothelium, Vascular / cytology
  • Endothelium, Vascular / metabolism*
  • Enzyme Induction
  • Ferritins / biosynthesis*
  • Heme / metabolism*
  • Heme Oxygenase (Decyclizing) / biosynthesis*
  • Humans
  • Kidney Diseases / etiology
  • Kidney Diseases / metabolism
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Rats
  • Rhabdomyolysis / chemically induced
  • Rhabdomyolysis / metabolism
  • Swine


  • Heme
  • Ferritins
  • Heme Oxygenase (Decyclizing)