The inducible isoform of haem oxygenase (HO-1) has been proposed as an effective system to counteract oxidant-induced cell injury. In several circumstances, this cytoprotective effect has been attributed to increased generation of the antioxidant bilirubin during haem degradation by HO-1. However, a direct implication for HO-1-derived bilirubin in protection against oxidative stress remains to be established. In the present study, we examined the dynamics of HO-1 expression and bilirubin production after stimulation of vascular smooth-muscle cells with hemin, a potent inducer of the HO-1 gene. We found that hemin-mediated increase in HO-1 protein expression and haem oxygenase activity is associated with augmented bilirubin levels. The majority of bilirubin production occurred early after exposure of cells to hemin. Hemin pre-treatment also resulted in high resistance to cell injury caused by an oxidant-generating system. Interestingly, this protective effect was manifest only when cells were actively producing bilirubin as a consequence of increased haem availability and utilization by HO-1. Tin protoporphyrin IX, an inhibitor of haem oxygenase activity, significantly reduced bilirubin generation and reversed cellular protection afforded by hemin treatment. Furthermore, addition of bilirubin to the culture medium markedly reduced the cytotoxicity produced by oxidants. Our findings provide direct evidence that bilirubin generated after up-regulation of the HO-1 pathway is cytoprotective against oxidative stress.

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