Cell-free hemoglobin (Hb) has been blamed for a spectrum of problems, including vasoconstriction pancreatitis, myocardial infarction, and pulmonary hypertension in hemolytic anemia, malaria, and sickle cell anemia, and from Hb-based oxygen carriers (HBOCs). Toxicities have been attributed to scavenging of nitric oxide (NO). However, while NO scavenging may explain many in vitro effects, and some effects in animal models and clinical trials with HBOCs, key inconsistencies in the theory require alternative explanations.
This review considers the hypothesis that cell-free Hb oversupplies oxygen to tissues, leading to oxygen-related toxicity, possibly through formation of reactive oxygen species and local destruction of NO. Evidence for this hypothesis comes from various sources, establishing that tissue oxygen levels are maintained over very narrow (and low) levels, even at high oxygen consumption. Tissue is normally protected from excessive oxygen by its extremely low solubility in plasma, but introduction of cell-free Hb, even at low concentration, greatly augments oxygen supply, engaging protective mechanisms that include vasoconstriction and ischemia.
The requirement to limit oxygen supply by cell-free Hb suggests novel ways to modify it to overcome vasoconstriction, independent of the intrinsic reaction of Hb with NO. This control is essential to the design of a safe and effective cell-free HBOC.