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NEW FINDINGS: What is the topic of this review? This review is principally concerned with results from studies of the pulmonary vasculature in humans, particularly in relation to hypoxia and rare diseases that affect oxygen sensing. What advances does it highlight? This review highlights the degree to which the hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) transcription system influences human pulmonary vascular responses to hypoxia. Upregulation of the HIF pathway augments hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction, while alterations to the pathway found in Tibetans are associated with suppression of the progressive increase in pulmonary artery pressure with sustained hypoxia. It also highlights the potential importance of iron, which modulates the HIF pathway, in modifying the pulmonary vascular response to hypoxia. The human pulmonary circulation loses its natural distensibility during sustained hypoxia, leading to pulmonary arterial hypertension and a much higher workload for the right ventricle. The hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF) pathway is implicated in this pulmonary vascular response to continued hypoxia by animal studies, and additionally, by rare human diseases where the pathway is upregulated. However, there are no known human genetic diseases downregulating HIF. Tibetans, though, demonstrate blunted pulmonary vascular responses to sustained hypoxia. This seems to be accounted for by an altered HIF pathway as a consequence of natural selection over a period of many thousands of years lived at high altitude. In addition to genetic differences, iron is another important modulator of HIF pathway function. Experimental work in humans demonstrates that manipulation of iron stores can influence the behaviour of the pulmonary circulation during hypoxia, in ways analogous to that seen in Tibetans and patients with rare diseases that affect oxygen sensing. The importance of physiological differences in iron bioavailability in modulating hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction in health and disease is yet to be established.

Original publication




Journal article


Exp Physiol

Publication Date





1233 - 1241


Altitude, Anoxia, Arterial Pressure, Ethnic Groups, Humans, Hypoxia-Inducible Factor 1, alpha Subunit, Iron, Lung, Oxygen, Tibet, Up-Regulation, Vasoconstriction