Nitric oxide (NO) plays a critical role in maintaining basal vascular tone and regulating blood flow. Many factors, including shear stress and endogenous ligands such as vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF) and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF1), stimulate the activity of endothelial nitric oxide synthase (eNOS). We have developed a bioassay that measures stimulation of NOS activity by soluble factors in unfractionated human plasma in cultured human endothelial cells using a sensitive NOS activity assay with radiolabeled substrate.

The addition of 1% human plasma to the culture medium stimulates NOS activity 1.5-fold over background, with a linear response up to 10% plasma, which activates NOS 5.5-fold. We have concluded from several lines of evidence that this NOS-inducing activity in human plasma comes from high-density lipoprotein (HDL): The activity is heat-labile and sensitive to reducing agents; it is precipitable by ammonium sulfate and elutes as a broad peak on molecular exclusion and anion exchange columns; by immunoblot, the active fractions have large amounts of apolipoproteins apoA-I, apoE and paroxonase-1. We find that plasma from an apoA-I null mouse shows less stimulation of NOS activity in our bioassay than plasma from a wild type mouse and apoA-I transgenic mouse (p=0.06, Brown-Forsythe test; p=0.04, post-test for linear trend; see figure). Purified HDL fractions stimulate NOS activity four-fold, equivalent to unfractionated plasma, but further subfractionation of HDL components extinguishes its ability to activate NOS.

Remarkably, higher than median NOS-stimulating activity in our bioassay was associated with endothelial-dependent blood flow, detected by venous occlusion strain gauge plethysmography measurement of forearm blood flow induced by graded infusions of acetylcholine into the brachial artery in adults with sickle cell anemia (p=0.0013, two-way ANOVA, see figure). The NOS-stimulating activity in patient plasma also correlated with the plasma apoA-I level (Spearman r=0.64, p=0.0012).

In summary, our results suggest that circulating functional apoA-I and possibly other apolipoproteins, regulate NO production and endothelial function in adults with sickle cell disease, which is consistent with previous lines of evidence published by other investigators in subjects without sickle cell disease. Most strikingly, our plasma NOS stimulation assay appears to provide a useful research biomarker for endothelial function, applicable to frozen archived plasma biospecimens.


No relevant conflicts of interest to declare.

Author notes


Asterisk with author names denotes non-ASH members.