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Free Radic Biol Med. 2004 Mar 15;36(6):707-17.

The biochemistry of nitric oxide, nitrite, and hemoglobin: role in blood flow regulation.

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  • 1Critical Care Medicine Department, Clinical Center, Laboratory of Chemical Biology, National Institutes of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD 20892-1662, USA.


Nitric oxide (NO) plays a fundamental role in maintaining normal vasomotor tone. Recent data implicate a critical function for hemoglobin and the erythrocyte in regulating the activity of NO in the vascular compartment. Intravascular hemolysis releases hemoglobin from the red blood cell into plasma (cell-free plasma hemoglobin), which is then able to scavenge endothelium-derived NO 600-fold faster than erythrocytic hemoglobin, thereby disrupting NO homeostasis. This may lead to vasoconstriction, decreased blood flow, platelet activation, increased endothelin-1 expression (ET-1), and end-organ injury, thus suggesting a novel mechanism of disease for hereditary and acquired hemolytic conditions such as sickle cell disease and cardiopulmonary bypass. Furthermore, therapy with NO gas inhalation or infusion of sodium nitrite during hemolysis may attenuate this disruption in vasomotor balance by oxidizing plasma cell-free hemoglobin, thereby preventing the consumption of endogenous NO and the associated pathophysiological changes. In addition to providing an NO scavenging role in the physiological regulation of NO-dependent vasodilation, hemoglobin and the erythrocyte may deliver NO as the hemoglobin deoxygenates. While this process has previously been ascribed to S-nitrosated hemoglobin, recent data from our laboratories suggest that deoxygenated hemoglobin reduces nitrite to NO and vasodilates the human circulation along the physiological oxygen gradient. This newly described role of hemoglobin as a nitrite reductase is discussed in the context of blood flow regulation, oxygen sensing, and nitrite-based therapeutics.

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