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Br J Pharmacol. 2008 Sep;155(2):170-84. doi: 10.1038/bjp.2008.263. Epub 2008 Jun 23.

The enigma of nitroglycerin bioactivation and nitrate tolerance: news, views and troubles.

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Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Karl-Franzens-University Graz, Graz, Austria.


Nitroglycerin (glyceryl trinitrate; GTN) is the most prominent representative of the organic nitrates or nitrovasodilators, a class of compounds that have been used clinically since the late nineteenth century for the treatment of coronary artery disease (angina pectoris), congestive heart failure and myocardial infarction. Medline lists more than 15 000 publications on GTN and other organic nitrates, but the mode of action of these drugs is still largely a mystery. In the first part of this article, we give an overview on the molecular mechanisms of GTN biotransformation resulting in vascular cyclic GMP accumulation and vasodilation with focus on the role of mitochondrial aldehyde dehydrogenase (ALDH2) and the link between the ALDH2 reaction and activation of vascular soluble guanylate cyclase (sGC). In particular, we address the identity of the bioactive species that activates sGC and the potential involvement of nitrite as an intermediate, describe our recent findings suggesting that ALDH2 catalyses direct 3-electron reduction of GTN to NO and discuss possible reaction mechanisms. In the second part, we discuss contingent processes leading to markedly reduced sensitivity of blood vessels to GTN, referred to as vascular nitrate tolerance. Again, we focus on ALDH2 and describe the current controversy on the role of ALDH2 inactivation in tolerance development. Finally, we emphasize some of the most intriguing, in our opinion, unresolved puzzles of GTN pharmacology that urgently need to be addressed in future studies.

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