Endotoxic shock is a life-threatening consequence of severe Gram- negative infection characterized by vascular smooth muscle cell relaxation and severe hypotension. The production of nitric oxide (NO), through the inducible NO synthase pathway, has been implicated as a major contributor in this process. We now demonstrate that heme oxygenase (HO), an enzyme that generates carbon monoxide (CO) in the course of heme metabolism, may also be involved in the hemodynamic compromise of endotoxic shock. Inducible HO (HO- 1) mRNA levels are dramatically increased in aortic tissue from rats receiving endotoxin, and this increase in vascular HO-1 message is associated with an 8.9-fold increase in HO enzyme activity in vivo. Immunocytochemical staining localizes an increase in HO-1 protein within smooth muscle cells of both large (aorta) and small (arterioles) blood vessels. Furthermore, zinc protoporphyrin IX, an inhibitor of HO activity, abrogates endotoxin-induced hypotension in rats. Studies performed in rat vascular smooth muscle cells in vitro show that the induction of HO-1 mRNA is regulated at the level of gene transcription, and this induction is independent of NO production. Taken together, these studies suggest that the up-regulation of HO-1, and the subsequent production of CO, contributes to the reduction in vascular tone during endotoxic shock.
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