We have examined whether the toxic effects of homocysteine on cultured endothelial cells could result from the formation and action of hydrogen peroxide. In initial experiments with a cell-free system, micromolar amounts of copper were found to catalyze an oxygen-dependent oxidation of homocysteine. The molar ratio of homocysteine oxidized to oxygen consumed was approximately 4.0, which suggests that oxygen was reduced to water. The addition of catalase, however, decreased oxygen consumption by nearly one-half, which suggests that H2O2 was formed during the reaction. Confirming this hypothesis, H2O2 formation was detected using the horseradish peroxidase-dependent oxidation of fluorescent scopoletin. Ceruloplasmin was also found to catalyze oxidation of homocysteine and generation of H2O2 in molar amounts equivalent to copper sulfate. Finally, homocysteine oxidation was catalyzed by normal human serum in a concentration-dependent manner. Using cultured human and bovine endothelial cells, we found that homocysteine plus copper could lyse the cells in a dose-dependent manner, an effect that was completely prevented by catalase. Homocystine plus copper was not toxic to the cells. Specific injury to endothelial cells was seen only after 4 h of incubation with homocysteine plus copper. Confirming the biochemical studies, ceruloplasmin was also found to be equivalent to Cu++ in its ability to cause injury to endothelial cells in the presence of homocysteine. Since elevated levels of homocysteine have been implicated in premature development of atherosclerosis, these findings may be relevant to the mechanism of some types of chronic vascular injury.
G Starkebaum, J M Harlan