RBCs (red blood cells) have a fundamental role in the regulation of vascular homoeostasis thanks to the ability of these cells to carry O2 (oxygen) between respiratory surfaces and metabolizing tissues and to release vasodilator compounds, such as ATP and NO (nitric oxide), in response to tissue oxygenation. More recently it has been shown that RBCs are also able to produce NO endogenously as they express a functional NOS (nitric oxide synthase), similar to the endothelial isoform. In addition, RBCs carry important enzymes and molecules involved in L-arginine metabolism, such as arginase, NO synthesis inhibitors and the cationic amino acid transporters. Altogether these findings strongly support the role of these cells as producers, vehicles and scavengers of NO, therefore affecting several physiological processes such as blood rheology and cell adhesion. Consequently, the importance of alterations in the L-arginine/NO metabolic pathway induced by specific conditions, e.g. oxidative stress, in different pathological settings have been investigated. In the present review we discuss the role of RBCs in vascular homoeostasis, focusing our attention on the importance of the NO pathway alterations in cardiovascular diseases and their relationship to major risk factors.

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