Hyperhomocysteinaemia is considered to be an independent risk factor for vascular disease. Elevated plasma homocysteine may pose an oxidative stress, leading to the development of vascular damage. A component of this effect may be a disturbance of the extracellular aminothiol redox state. The relative contributions of plasma total homocysteine (tHcy) and plasma total cysteine (tCys) to the total antioxidant capacity (TAOC) of plasma was established in subjects with normal and elevated plasma tHcy. A total of 10 subjects with severe hyperhomocysteinaemia (due to inherited metabolic defects), 13 of their heterozygous parents and 72 normal healthy subjects were recruited to the study. The mean plasma tHcy in the patients was 91.8 µmol/l, compared with 13.2 µmol/l in the parents and 14.7 µmol/l in healthy control subjects. Plasma tCys and plasma TAOC were significantly lower in the subjects with severe hyperhomocysteinaemia compared with the parents and healthy control subjects (P < 0.05). In blood samples from subjects with a normal tHcy, a positive correlation was observed between tCys and tHcy (P = 0.0001). In contrast, in blood samples with tHcy ⩾ 20 µmol/l, plasma tCys was negatively correlated with tHcy (P = 0.0001). In samples with tHcy ⩾ 20 µmol/l, tHcy was inversely correlated with TAOC (P = 0.0001), whereas tCys was positively associated with TAOC (P = 0.0001). Multiple regression analysis revealed that tCys was the most important independent determinant of TAOC in the patient and control groups when the effects of tHcy and several factors known to influence TAOC, such as urate, were taken into account. Thus hyperhomocysteinaemia may pose an oxidative stress not only through the direct cytotoxicity of homocysteine, but also from an associated fall in plasma cysteine.

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