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Proc Assoc Am Physicians. 1999 Sep-Oct;111(5):438-47.

Heme oxygenase: recent advances in understanding its regulation and role.

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Department of Medicine, University of Massachusetts Medical School, Worcester, USA.


Heme oxygenase (HO) is responsible for the physiological breakdown of heme into equimolar amounts of biliverdin, carbon monoxide, and iron. Three isoforms (HO-1, HO-2, and HO-3) have been identified. HO-1 is ubiquitous and its mRNA and activity can be increased several-fold by heme, other metalloporphyrins, transition metals, and stimuli that induce cellular stress. HO-1 is recognized as a major heat shock/stress response protein. Recent work from our laboratory has demonstrated several potential consensus regulatory elements in the 5'-untranslated region (UTR) of HO-1, including activator protein 1 (AP-1), metal responsive element (MRE), oncogene c-myc/max heterodimer binding site (Myc/Max), antioxidant response element (ARE), and GC box binding (Sp1) sites. Using deletion-reporter gene constructs, we have mapped sites that mediate the arsenite-dependent induction of HO-1, and we have shown that components of the extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) and p38 (a homologue of the yeast HOG1 kinase), but not c-jun N-terminal kinase (JNK), mitogen-activated protein (MAP) kinase pathways are involved in arsenite-dependent upregulation. In contrast, HO-2 is present chiefly in the brain and testes and is virtually uninducible. HO-3 has very low activity; its physiological function probably involves heme binding. Products of the HO reaction have important effects: carbon monoxide is a potent vasodilator, which is thought to play a key role in the modulation of vascular tone, especially in the liver under physiological conditions, and in many organs under "stressful" conditions associated with HO-1 induction. Biliverdin and its product bilirubin, formed in most mammals, are potent antioxidants. In contrast, "free" iron increases oxidative stress and regulates the expression of many mRNAs (e.g., DCT-1, ferritin, and transferrin receptor) by affecting the conformation of iron regulatory protein (IRP)-1 and its binding to iron regulatory elements (IREs) in the 5'- or 3'-UTRs of the mRNAs.

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