Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry

, Volume 48, Issue 3, pp 161-182

Mechanism of the anticoagulant action of heparin

  • I. BjörkAffiliated withDept. of Medical and Physiological Chemistry, College of Veterinary Medicine, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, The Biomedical Center
  • , U. LindahlAffiliated withDept. of Medical and Physiological Chemistry, College of Veterinary Medicine, Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, The Biomedical Center

Rent the article at a discount

Rent now

* Final gross prices may vary according to local VAT.

Get Access


The anticoagulant effect of heparin, a sulfated glycosaminoglycan produced by mast cells, requires the participation of the plasma protease inhibitor antithrombin, also called heparin cofactor. Antithrombin inhibits coagulation proteases by forming equimolar, stable complexes with the enzymes. The formation of these complexes involves the attack by the enzyme of a specific Arg-Ser bond in the carboxy-terminal region of the inhibitor. The complexes so formed are not dissociated by denaturing solvents, which indicates that a covalent bond may contribute to their stability. This bond may be an acyl bond between the active-site serine of the enzyme and the arginine of the cleaved reactive bond of the inhibitor. However, the native complexes dissociate slowly at near-neutral pH into free enzyme and a modified inhibitor, cleaved at the reactive bond. So, antithrombin apparently functions as a pseudo-substrate that traps the enzyme in a kinetically stable complex.

The reactions between antithrombin and coagulation proteases are slow in the absence of heparin. However, optimal amounts of heparin accelerate these reactions up to 2 000-fold, thereby efficiently preventing the formation of fibrin in blood. The accelerating effect, and thus the anticoagulant activity, is shown by only about one-third of the molecules in all heparin preparations, while the remaining molecules are almost inactive. The highly active molecules bind tightly to antithrombin, i.e. with a binding constant of slightly below 108 M−1 at physiological ionic strength, while the relatively inactive molecules bind about a thousand-fold more weakly. The binding of the high-affinity heparin to antithrombin is accompanied by a conformational change in the inhibitor that is detectable by spectroscopic and kinetic methods. This conformational change follows an initial, weak binding of heparin to antithrombin and causes the tight interaction between polysaccharide and inhibitor that is prerequisite to heparin anticoagulant activity. It has also been postulated that the conformational change leads to a more favourable exposure of the reactive site of antithrombin, thereby allowing the rapid interaction with the proteases.

Heparin also binds to the coagulation proteases. Recent studies indicate that this binding is weaker and less specific that the binding to antithrombin. Nevertheless, for some enzymes, thrombin, Factor IXa and Factor XIa, an interaction between heparin and the protease, in addition to that between the polysaccharide and antithrombin; apparently is involved in the accelerated inhibition of the enzymes. The effect of this interaction may be to approximate enzyme with inhibitor in an appropriate manner. However, the bulk of the evidence available indicates that binding of heparin to the protease alone cannot be responsible for the accelerating effect of the polysaccharide on the antithrombin-protease reaction.

Heparin acts as a catalyst in the antithrombin-protease reaction, i.e. it accelerates the reaction in non-stoichiometric amounts and is not consumed during the reaction. This ability can be explained by heparin being released from the antithrombin-protease complex for renewed binding to antithrombin, once the complex has been formed. Such a decresed affinity of heparin for the antithrombin complex, compared to the affinity for antithrombin alone, has been demonstrated.

The structure of the antithrombin-binding region in heparin has been investigated following the isolation of oligosaccharides with high affinity for antithrombin. The smallest such oligosaccharide, an octasaccharide, obtained after partial random depolymerization of heparin with nitrous acid, was found to contain a unique glucosamine-3-O-sulfate group, which could not be detected in other portions of the high affinity heparin molecule and which was absent in heparin with low affinity for antithrombin. The actual antithrombin-binding region within this octasaccharide molecule has been identified as a pentasaccharide sequence with he predominant structure: →N-acetyl-D-glucosamine(6-O-SO3)→D-glucoronic acid→D-glucosamine(N-SO3;3,6-di-O-SO3)→L-iduronic acid(2-O-SO3)→D-glucosamine(N-SO3;6-O-SO3). In addition to the 3-O-sulfate group, both N-sulfate groups as well as the 6-O-sulfate group of the N-acetylated glucosamine unit appear to be essential for the interaction with antithrombin. The remarkably constant structure of this sequence, as compared to other regions of the heparin molecule, suggests a strictly regulated mechanism of biosynthesis.

The ability of heparin to potentiate the inhibition of blood coagulation by antithrombin generally decreases with decreasing molecular weight of the polysaccharide. However, individual coagulation enzymes differ markedly with regard to this molecular-weight dependence. Oligosaccharides in the extreme low-molecular weight range, i.e. octa- to dodecasaccharides, with high affinity for antithrombin have high anti-Factor Xa-activity but are virtually unable to potentiate the inhibition of thrombin. Furthermore, such oligosaccharides are ineffective in preventing experimentally induced venous thrombosis in rabbits. Slightly larger oligosaccharides, containing 16 to 18 monosaccharide residues, show significant anti-thrombin as well as antithrombotic activities, yet have little effect on overall blood coagulation. These findings indicate that the affinity of a heparin fragment for antithrombin is not in itself a measure of the ability to prevent venous thrombo-genesis, and that the anti-Factor Xa activity of heparin is only a partial expression of its therapeutic potential as an antithrombotic agent.

The biological role of the interaction between heparin and antithrombin is unclear. In addition to a possible function in the regulation of hemostasis, endogenous heparin may serve as a regulator of extravascular serine proteinases. Mouse peritoneal macrophages have been found to synthesize all the enzymes that constitute the extrinsic pathway of coagulation. Moreover, tissue thromboplastin is produced by these cells in response to a functional interaction with activated T-lymphocytes. The inhibition of this extravascular coagulation system by heparin, released from mast cells, may be potentially important in modulating inflammatory reactions.