Haemoglobin-based oxygen carriers can undergo oxidation of ferrous haemoglobin into a non-functional ferric form with enhanced rates of haem loss. A recently developed human haemoglobin conjugated to maleimide-activated poly(ethylene glycol), termed MP4, has unique physicochemical properties (increased molecular radius, high oxygen affinity and low cooperativity) and lacks the typical hypertensive response observed with most cell-free haemoglobin solutions. The rate of in vitro MP4 autoxidation is higher compared with the rate for unmodified SFHb (stroma-free haemoglobin), both at room temperature (20–22 °C) and at 37 °C (P<0.001). This appears to be attributable to residual catalase activity in SFHb but not MP4. In contrast, MP4 and SFHb showed the same susceptibility to oxidation by reactive oxygen species generated by a xanthine–xanthine oxidase system. Once fully oxidized to methaemoglobin, the rate of in vitro haem loss was five times higher in MP4 compared with SFHb in the fast phase, which we assign to the β subunits, whereas the slow phase (i.e. haem loss from α chains) showed similar rates for the two haemoglobins. Formation of MP4 methaemoglobin in vivo following transfusion in rats and humans was slower than predicted by its first-order in vitro autoxidation rate, and there was no appreciable accumulation of MP4 methaemoglobin in plasma before disappearing from the circulation. These results show that MP4 oxidation and haem loss characteristics observed in vitro provide information regarding the effect of poly(ethylene glycol) conjugation on the stability of the haemoglobin molecule, but do not correspond to the oxidation behaviour of MP4 in vivo.

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