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Nitric Oxide, Free Radicals

Nitric oxide (NO) is a simple gas molecule composed of one nitrogen atom and one oxygen atom. NO possesses an unpaired electron making it a reactive free radical that the body uses as a powerful signaling molecule. Until 1987, NO was known only as a toxic pollutant gas that appeared in automobile exhaust and city smog. That year, NO was discovered to be produced in the body and shown to have a signaling function in the cardiovascular system. For their seminal discoveries in 1987 concerning the physiological roles of NO, Drs. Robert Furchgott, Louis Ignarro, and Ferid Murad were awarded the 1998 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Q. What is a free radical?

Free radicals such as hydroxyl radical and superoxide anion radical are molecules that possess unpaired electrons. This property makes them especially reactive with other molecules. Free radicals are reactive, unstable and can cause cellular damage that leads to the pathology of strokes, heart disease, and numerous other illnesses. Unlike other free radicals, NO has both life-saving and life-taking properties. In small amounts, NO plays vital roles in many body functions including regulating blood pressure, establishing memory, and fighting pathogens. During inflammatory diseases and other disorders, NO is produced in excessive amounts and exhibits its free radical properties by injuring tissue and contributing to disease pathology.

Q. Why is nitric oxide such an important molecule?

Nitric oxide plays many important roles in the body. Under normal conditions, NO is produced in very small amounts which play crucial roles in regulating blood pressure, facilitating memory, and defending the body against pathogens. The body has natural protective mechanisms to protect itself from NO. Under pathological conditions, NO is produced in excessive amounts which can overwhelm these protective mechanisms. Excessive NO can then cause inappropriate enzyme activation and oxidative damage to vital cellular systems. Excessive NO production occurs during inflammatory conditions and is associated with numerous and diverse human diseases and disorders including intradialytic hypotension, diabetes, septic and hemorrhagic shock, stroke, allograft rejection, and Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

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