Background & Aims: The induction of heme oxygenase (HO-1), the rate-limiting enzyme in heme metabolism, is protective against injury in acute and chronic inflammation. Inhalation of low levels of carbon monoxide (CO), a byproduct of heme metabolism, has anti-inflammatory effects equal to HO-1 induction. This study examined whether inhaled CO was protective against the development of postoperative ileus. Methods: Ileus was induced by surgical anesthesia and gentle manipulation of the mouse small intestine. Animals were exposed to CO (250 ppm) in air 1 hour before and continuously for 24 hours after surgery. Results: CO inhalation prevented the manipulation-induced suppression of circular muscle contractility in vitro, and significantly improved gastrointestinal transit in vivo. Proinflammatory messenger RNA (mRNA) expression (interleukin [IL]-6, IL- 1β, cyclooxygenase 2 [COX-2], inducible nitric oxide [iNOS]) and anti-inflammatory mediator expression (IL-10 and HO-1) were elevated 3 to 6 hours after surgery relative to controls. CO treatment reduced IL-1β and iNOS peak expression by 75%, but not IL-6 or COX-2. In manipulated mice treated with CO, HO-1 expression peaked earlier (3 hours after surgery) and at levels 300% higher than in mice not exposed to CO. IL-10 expression at 3 hours also was 300% higher after CO treatment. Conclusions: These findings suggest that CO attenuates postoperative ileus by inhibiting selective elements within the inflammatory cascade and by enhanced induction of the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10. In addition, the early and enhanced induction of HO-1 potentially amplifies the anti-inflammatory effects of the HO-1 pathway by protection from free radical stress and by increasing the tissue availability of CO directly at the sites of inflammation.
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