Review article: the potential role of nitric oxide in chronic inflammatory bowel disorders


Rask-Madsen Department of Medical Gastroenterology 261, Hvidovre Hospital, Kettegaard allé 30, DK-2650 Hvidovre, Denmark E-mail:


The aetiology of the chronic inflammatory bowel diseases—ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease—as well as ‘microscopic colitis’—both collagenous (COC) and lymphocytic colitis (LC)—remains unknown. Autoimmune mechanisms, cytokine polymorphism, commensal bacteria, infectious agents and vascular impairment have all been proposed as playing important roles in the pathogenesis of this spectrum of diseases.

A variety of proinflammatory mediators, including tumour necrosis factor α, interleukin-1β, interferon γ, leukotriene B4 and platelet activating factor, promote the adherence of phagocytes to the venular endothelium and extravasation of these cells into the colonic mucosa. In addition to large amounts of nitric oxide (NO), injurious peroxynitrite may be formed in the epithelium by the inducible nitric oxide synthase (iNOS), which is considered to elicit cytotoxicity by the generation of superoxide with reduced L-arginine availability. In active ulcerative colitis, and to a lesser extent in Crohn’s disease, a greatly increased production of NO has been demonstrated by indirect and direct measurements. Surprisingly, even higher rates of production have been observed in COC—a condition which is never associated with injurious inflammation. The latter observation favours the notion that NO promotes mucosal integrity. Further evidence for a protective role of NO in chronic inflammatory bowel disorders is provided by the observation of increased susceptibility to the induction of experi mental colitis in ‘knock-out’ mice deficient in iNOS.

Selective inhibitors of iNOS activity, as well as topical L-arginine, may therefore prove beneficial in inflammatory bowel disease by reducing the production of superoxide by iNOS, while only the former option may be expected to reduce diarrhoea in chronic inflammatory bowel disorders. Clearly, further experimental work needs to be done before testing topical L-arginine in human inflammatory bowel disease.