We previously demonstrated in in vitro and ex vivo models that physiological concentrations of unconjugated bilirubin (BR) prevent oxidative stress (OS)-induced hepatocanalicular dysfunction and cholestasis. Here, we aimed to ascertain, in the whole rat, whether a similar cholestatic OS injury can be counteracted by heme oxygenase-1 (HO-1) induction that consequently elevates endogenous BR levels. This was achieved through the administration of hemin, an inducer of HO-1, the rate-limiting step in BR generation. We found that BR peaked between 6 and 8 h after hemin administration. During this time period, HO-1 induction fully prevented the pro-oxidant tert-butylhydroperoxide (tBuOOH)-induced drop in bile flow, and in the biliary excretion of bile salts and glutathione, the two main driving forces of bile flow; this was associated with preservation of the membrane localization of their respective canalicular transporters, bile salt export pump (Bsep) and multidrug resistance-associated protein 2 (Mrp2), which are otherwise endocytosed by OS. HO-1 induction counteracted the oxidation of intracellular proteins and membrane lipids induced by tBuOOH, and fully prevented the increase in the oxidized-to-total glutathione (GSHt) ratio, a sensitive parameter of hepatocellular OS. Compensatory elevations of the activity of the antioxidant enzymes catalase (CAT) and superoxide dismutase (SOD) were also prevented. We conclude that in vivo HO-1 induction protects the liver from acute oxidative injury, thus preventing consequent cholestasis. This reveals an important role for the induction of HO-1 and the consequently elevated levels of BR in preserving biliary secretory function under OS conditions, thus representing a novel therapeutic tool to limit the cholestatic injury that bears an oxidative background.

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