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What Are Free Radicals ?

A free radical is an atom or group of atoms that have one or more unpaired electrons. Free
radicals can have positive, negative or neutral charge. They are formed as necessary
intermediates in a variety of normal biochemical reactions, but when generated in excess or not
appropriately controlled, free radicals can wreak havoc on a broad range of macromolecules. A
prominent feature of free radicals is that they have extremely high chemical reactivity, which
explains not only their normal biological activities, but how they inflict damage on cells.

Oxygen Free Radicals

There are many types of free radicals, but those of most concern in biological systems are
derived from oxygen, and known collectively as reactive oxygen species (ROS). Oxygen has two
unpaired electrons in separate orbitals in its outer shell. This electronic structure makes oxygen
especially susceptible to radical formation.

Sequential reduction of molecular oxygen (equivalent to sequential addition of electrons) leads to

formation of a group of reactive oxygen species:

• superoxide anion
• peroxide (hydrogen peroxide)
• hydroxyl radical

Formation of Reactive Oxygen Species

Oxygen-derived radicals are generated constantly as part of normal aerobic life. They are formed
in mitochondria as oxygen is reduced along the electron transport chain. Reactive oxygen
species are also formed as necessary intermediates in a variety of enzyme reactions.
Examples of situations in which oxygen radicals are overproduced in cells include:

• White blood cells such as neutrophils specialise in producing oxygen radicals, which
are used in host defense to kill invading pathogens.
• Cells exposed to abnormal environments such as hypoxia or hyperoxia generate
abundant and often damaging reactive oxygen species. A number of drugs have
oxidizing effects on cells and lead to production of oxygen radicals.
• Ionizing radiation is well known to generate oxygen radicals within biological
systems. Interestingly, the damaging effects of radiation are higher in well
oxygenated tissues than in tissues deficient in oxygen.

Biological Effects of Reactive Oxygen

It is best not to think of oxygen radicals as "bad". They are generated in a number of reactions
essential to life and, as mentioned above, phagocytic cells generate radicals to kill invading
pathogens. There is also a large body evidence indicating that oxygen radicals are involved in
intercellular and intracellular signalling. For example, addition of superoxide or hydrogen
peroxide to a variety of cultured cells leads to an increased rate of DNA replication and cell
proliferation - in other words, these radicals function as mitogens.

Free radicals in disease

Despite their beneficial activities, reactive oxygen species clearly can be toxic to cells. By
definition, radicals possess an unpaired electron, which makes them highly reactive and thereby
able to damage all macromolecules, including lipids, proteins and nucleic acids.

One of the best known toxic effects of oxygen radicals is damage to cellular membranes (plasma,
mitochondrial and endomembrane systems), which is initiated by a process known as lipid
peroxidation. A common target for peroxidation is unsaturated fatty acids present in membrane
Reactions involving radicals occur in chain reactions. Note in the figure above that a hydrogen
is abstracted from the fatty acid by hydroxyl radical, leaving a carbon-centered radical as part
of the fatty acid. That radical then reacts with oxygen to yield the peroxy radical, which can then
react with other fatty acids or proteins.

Peroxidation of membrane lipids can have numerous effects, including:

• increased membrane rigidity

• decreased activity of membrane-bound enzymes (e.g. sodium pumps)
• altered activity of membrane receptors.
• altered permeability

In addition to effects on phospholipids, radicals can also directly attack membrane proteins and
induce lipid-lipid, lipid-protein and protein-protein crosslinking, all of which obviously have
effects on membrane function.
Alcohol, oxidative stress, and free radical damage

Alcohol promotes the generation of ROS and/or interferes with the body's normal defense
mechanisms against these compounds through numerous processes, particularly in the
liver. For example, alcohol breakdown in the liver results in the formation of molecules
whose further metabolism in the cell leads to ROS production. Alcohol also stimulates
the activity of enzymes called cytochrome P450s, which contribute to ROS production.
Further, alcohol can alter the levels of certain metals in the body, thereby facilitating
ROS production. Finally, alcohol reduces the levels of agents that can eliminate ROS
(i.e., antioxidants). The resulting state of the cell, known as oxidative stress, can lead to
cell injury. ROS production and oxidative stress in liver cells play a central role in the
development of alcoholic liver disease

Oxidative stress and aging

Oxidative stress, originating from reactive oxygen species and free radicals provides a constant
challenge to eukaryotic cell survival. While implicated in a number of degenerative diseases,
some associated with aging and with aging itself, the manner and extent to which oxidative stress
contributes to the initiation or implementation of programmed-cell death is problematic. If
oxidative stress is an important modulator of programmed-cell death, any ability intentionally to
augment or inhibit it might ameliorate diseases in which the process is abnormally underactive or

Oxidative stress is thought to be linked to certain cardiovascular disease, since oxidation of LDL
in the endothelium is a precursor to plaque formation. Oxidative stress also plays a role in the
ischemic cascade due to oxygen deprivation. This includes Stroke and Heart attack

Free radicals and neurodegenerative diseases

There is significant evidence that the pathogenesis of several neurodegenerative diseases,

including Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, Friedreich's ataxia (FRDA), multiple
sclerosis and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, may involve the generation of reactive oxygen
species (ROS) and/or reactive nitrogen species (RNS) associated with mitochondrial
dysfunction. The mitochondrial genome may play an essential role in the pathogenesis of these
diseases, and evidence for mitochondria being a site of damage in neurodegenerative disorders is
based in part on observed decreases in the respiratory chain complex activities in Parkinson's,
Alzheimer's, and Huntington's disease. Such defects in respiratory complex activities, possibly
associated with oxidant/antioxidant imbalance, are thought to underlie defects in energy
metabolism and induce cellular degeneration.

Reactive oxygen species in arthritis.

A vast amount of circumstantial evidence implicates oxygen-derived free radicals, especially

reactive oxygen species and nitric oxide as mediators of inflammation and/or tissue destruction
in inflammatory and arthritic disorders. Reactive oxygen species can initiate a wide range of
toxic oxidative reactions. These include initiation of lipid peroxidation, direct inhibition of
mitochondrial respiratory chain enzymes, inactivation of glyceraldehyde-3phosphate
dehydrogenase, inhibition of membrane sodium/potassium ATP-ase activity, inactivation of
membrane sodium channels, and other oxidative modifications of proteins. All these toxicities
are likely to play a role in the pathophysiology of inflammation. Reactive oxygen species are all
potential reactants capable of initiating DNA single strand breakage, with subsequent activation
of the nuclear enzyme poly (ADP ribose) synthetase (PARS), leading to eventual severe energy
depletion of the cells, and necrotic-type cell death. Recently it has been demonstrated that iNOS
inhibitor prevents the activation of poly (ADP ribose) synthetase, and prevents the organ injury
associated with inflammation. Although the severity and duration of inflammation may dictate
the timing and extent of NOS expression, it is now evident that the up-regulation of NOS can
take place during sustained inflammation. Thus, induced nitric oxide, in addition to being a "final
common mediator" of inflammation, is essential for the up-regulation of the inflammatory
response. Furthermore, a picture of a pathway is evolving that contributes to tissue damage both
directly via the formation of reactive oxygen species, with them associated toxicities, and
indirectly through the amplification of the inflammatory response.
Mechanisms for Protection Against Radicals

Life on Earth evolved in the presence of oxygen, and necessarily adapted by evolution of a large
battery of antioxidant systems. Some of these antioxidant molecules are present in all lifeforms
examined, from bacteria to mammals, indicating their appearance early in the history of life.

Many antioxidants work by transiently becoming radicals themselves. These molecules are
usually part of a larger network of cooperating antioxidants that end up regenerating the original
antioxidant. For example, vitamin E becomes a radical, but is regenerated through the activity of
the antioxidants vitamin C and glutathione.

Enzymatic Antioxidants

Three groups of enzymes play significant roles in protecting cells from oxidant stress:

Superoxide dismutases (SOD) are enzymes that catalyze the conversion of two
superoxides into hydrogen peroxide and oxygen. The benefit here is that hydrogen
peroxide is substantially less toxic that superoxide. SOD accelerates this detoxifying
reaction roughly 10,000-fold over the non-catalyzed reaction.

Interestingly, SODs are inducible enzymes - exposure of cells to higher

concentrations of oxygen results in rapid increases in the concentration of SOD.

Catalase is found in peroxisomes in eucaryotic cells. It degrades hydrogen peroxide

to water and oxygen, and hence finishes the detoxification reaction started by SOD.

Glutathione peroxidase is a group of enzymes, the most abundant of which contain

selenium. These enyzmes, like catalase, degrade hydrogen peroxide. They also
reduce organic peroxides to alcohols, providing another route for eliminating toxic
In addition to these enzymes, glutathione transferase, ceruloplasmin, hemoxygenase and possibly 
several   other   enzymes   may   participate   in   enzymatic   control   of   oxygen   radicals   and   their 

Non­enzymatic Antioxidants

Three non-enzymatic antioxidants of particular importance are:

Vitamin E is the major lipid-soluble antioxidant, and plays a vital role in protecting
membranes from oxidative damage. Its primary activity is to trap peroxy radicals in
cellular membranes.

Vitamin C or ascorbic acid is a water-soluble antioxidant that can reduce radicals

from a variety of sources. It also appears to participate in recycling vitamine E
radicals. Interestingly, vitamin C also functions as a pro-oxidant under certain

Glutathione may well be the most important intracellular defense against damage by
reactive oxygen species. It is a tripeptide (glutamyl-cysteinyl-glycine). The cysteine
provides an exposed free sulphydryl group (SH) that is very reactive, providing an
abundant target for radical attack. Reaction with radicals oxidises glutathione, but the
reduced form is regenerated in a redox cycle involving glutathione reductase and the
electron acceptor NADPH.

In addition to these "big three", there are numerous small molecules that function as antioxidants.
Examples include bilrubin, uric acid, flavonoids and carotenoids.

Researches have found mitochondrial antioxidant therapy to be the most efficacious in reducing
pathological changes and in not producing adverse effects in cases of neurodegenerative
diseases. Thus, mitochondrial antioxidant therapy is promising as a treatment for
neurodegenerative patients. Once in the mitochondria, they rapidly neutralize free radicals and
decrease mitochondrial toxicity. Thus, mitochondrially targeted antioxidants are promising
candidates for treating these patients.

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