Bilirubin inhibits iNOS expression and NO production in response to endotoxin in rats



The inducible isoform of heme oxygenase (HO), HO-1, has been shown to play an important role in attenuating tissue injury. Because HO-1 catalyzes the rate-limiting step in bilirubin synthesis, we examined the hypothesis that bilirubin is a key mediator of HO-1 cytoprotection, employing a rat model of endotoxemia. Bilirubin treatment resulted in improved survival and attenuated liver injury in response to lipopolysaccharide infusion. Serum levels of NO and tumor necrosis factor α, key mediators of endotoxemia, and hepatic inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS) expression were significantly lower in bilirubin-treated rodents versus control animals. Both intraperitoneal and local administration of bilirubin also was found to ameliorate hindpaw inflammation induced by the injection of λ-carrageenan. Consistent with in vivo results, bilirubin significantly inhibited iNOS expression and suppressed NO production in lipopolysaccharide (LPS)-stimulated RAW 264.7 murine macrophages. In contrast, bilirubin treatment induced a threefold increase in LPS-mediated prostaglandin synthesis in the absence of significant changes in cyclooxygenase expression or activity, suggesting that bilirubin enhances substrate availability for eicosanoid synthesis. Bilirubin had no effect on LPS-mediated activation of nuclear factor κB or p38 mitogen-activated protein kinase, consistent with a nuclear factor κB–independent mechanism of action. Taken together, these data support a cytoprotective role for bilirubin that is mediated, at least in part, through the inhibition of iNOS expression and, potentially, through stimulation of local prostaglandin E2 production. In conclusion, our findings suggest a role for bilirubin in mollifying tissue injury in response to inflammatory stimuli and support the possibility that the phenomenon of “jaundice of sepsis” represents an adaptive physiological response to endotoxemia. Supplementary material for this article can be found on the HEPATOLOGY website ( (HEPATOLOGY 2004;40:424–433.)