Bilirubin Chemistry, Ionization and Solubilization by Bile Salts

Authors

  • J. Donald OSTROW,

    Corresponding author
    1. Gastroenterology Section, Department of Medicine, Veterans Administration Lakeside Medical Center and Northwestern University Medical School, Chicago, Illinois 60611
    • J. Donald Ostrow, M.D. (111G), Veterans Administration Lakeside Medical Center, 333 East Huron Street, Chicago, Ilinois 60611.
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  • Lillian Celic

    1. Gastroenterology Section, Department of Medicine, Veterans Administration Lakeside Medical Center and Northwestern University Medical School, Chicago, Illinois 60611
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Abstract

Bilirubin is a linear tetrapyrrole whose conformation is affected by internal hydrogen bonds formed between the carboxyl side chains and dipyrromethenone rings. Structural variations include: constitutional isomerism of the vinyl or carboxyethyl side chains, geometric isomerism of the methene bridges, tautomerism of the lactam groups, conformational rotations about the central methylene bridge and ionization of one or both carboxyl groups. Aggregation of the dianion into dimers and multimers may occur. The pKa' values of the two carboxyl groups are affected greatly by the environment and may differ widely in micellar solutions like bile. Solubility of bilirubin in water is less than 1 nM at pH = 7 and about 0.1 μM at pH = 8. Nonetheless, it dissolves poorly in most lipid solvents, except for asymmetrical chloroalkanes. Hydrogen bond-breaking solvents, especially dimethyl sulfoxide, are most effective in solubilizing bilirubin. In bile salt solutions, solubility of bilirubin is well above the concentrations of unconjugated bilirubin found in normal human gallbladder bile, and is impaired by lecithin but unaffected by cholesterol. At physiological pH in bile salt solutions, bilirubin is predominantly in its monoanion form that binds readily to the micelles. In such solutions, addition of physiological concentrations of calcium precipitates calcium bilirubinate, leaving residual bilirubin concentrations of up to 15 μM in 50 mM taurocholate or close to the maximum bilirubin concentrations in normal bile. Studies in which disodium bilirubinate is dissolved in bile salt solutions and pH is adjusted to the physiological range reveal that metastable supersaturation with bilirubin may occur and that a mesophase may also form in the presence of lecithin, akin to that seen with cholesterol. These results form a basis for understanding the precipitation of calcium bilirubinate from bile during pigment gallstone formation.

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