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Br J Haematol. 2008 May;141(3):325-34. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2141.2008.07029.x.

The human side of hypoxia-inducible factor.

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Department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.


When humans are exposed to hypoxia, systemic and intracellular changes operate together to minimise hypoxic injury and restore adequate oxygenation. Emerging evidence indicates that the hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) family of transcription factors plays a central regulatory role in these homeostatic changes at both the systemic and cellular levels. HIF was discovered through its action as the transcriptional activator of erythropoietin, and has subsequently been found to control intracellular hypoxic responses throughout the body. HIF is primarily regulated by specific prolyl hydroxylase-domain enzymes (PHDs) that initiate its degradation via the von Hippel-Lindau tumour suppressor protein (VHL). The oxygen and iron dependency of PHD activity accounts for regulation of the pathway by both cellular oxygen and iron status. Recent studies conducted in patients with rare genetic diseases have begun to uncover the wider importance of the PHD-VHL-HIF axis in systems-level human biology. These studies indicate that, in addition to regulating erythropoiesis, the system plays an important role in cardiopulmonary regulation. This article reviews our current understanding of the importance of HIF in human systems-level physiology, and is modelled around the classic physiological response to high-altitude hypoxia.

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