In biochemistry, eicosanoids (preferred IUPAC name icosanoids) are signaling molecules made by oxidation of 20-carbon fatty acids. They exert complex control over many bodily systems; mainly in growth during and after physical activity, inflammation or immunity after the intake of toxic compounds and pathogens, and as messengers in the central nervous system. The networks of controls that depend upon eicosanoids are among the most complex in the human body.
Eicosanoids are derived from either omega-3 (ω-3) or omega-6 (ω-6) fatty acids. In general, the ω-6 eicosanoids are pro-inflammatory; ω-3s are much less so. The amounts and balance of these fats in a person's diet will affect the body's eicosanoid-controlled functions, with effects on cardiovascular disease, triglycerides, blood pressure, and arthritis.
There are multiple subfamilies of eicosanoids, including the prostaglandins, thromboxanes, and leukotrienes, as well as the lipoxins and eoxins, and others. For each, there are two or three separate series, derived from either an ω-3 or an ω-6 EFA. These series' different activities largely explain the health effects of ω-3 and ω-6 fats.
- Nomenclature 1
- Peroxidation and reactive oxygen species 2.1
- Prostanoid pathways 2.2
- Leukotriene pathways 2.3
Function and pharmacology 3
The ω-3 and ω-6 series 3.1
- Mechanisms of ω-3 action 3.1.1
- Role in inflammation 3.2
- Action of prostanoids 3.3
- Action of leukotrienes 3.4
- The ω-3 and ω-6 series 3.1
- History 4
- References 5
- External links 6
- See related detail at Essential Fatty Acid Interactions—Nomenclature
- Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), an ω-3 fatty acid with 5 double bonds;
- Arachidonic acid (AA), an ω-6 fatty acid, with 4 double bonds;
- Dihomo-gamma-linolenic acid (DGLA), an ω-6, with 3 double bonds.
Current usage limits the term eicosanoid to leukotrienes (LT), eoxins (EX), and three types of prostanoids—prostaglandins (PG), prostacyclins (PGI) and thromboxanes (TX). This is the definition used in this article. However, several other classes can technically be termed eicosanoid, including the hepoxilins, resolvins, isofurans, isoprostanes, lipoxins, epi-lipoxins, epoxyeicosatrienoic acids (EETs) and endocannabinoids. LTs and prostanoids are sometimes termed 'classic eicosanoids' in contrast to the 'novel', 'eicosanoid-like' or 'nonclassic eicosanoids'.
A particular eicosanoid is denoted by a four-character abbreviation, composed of:
- Its two-letter abbreviation (above),
- One A-B-C sequence-letter; and
- A subscript, indicating the number of double bonds.
- The EPA-derived prostanoids have three double bonds, (e.g., PGG3, PGH3, PGI3, TXA3) while its leukotrienes have five, (LTB5).
- The AA-derived prostanoids have two double bonds, (e.g., PGG2, PGH2, PGI2, TXA2) while its leukotrienes have four, (LTB4).
Furthermore, stereochemistry may differ among the pathways, indicated by Greek letters, e.g. for (PGF2α).
Two families of enzymes catalyze fatty acid oxygenation to produce the eicosanoids:
- Cyclooxygenase, or COX, generates the prostanoids from arachidonic acid.
- Lipoxygenase, or LOX, in several forms. 5-Lipoxygenase (5-LO) generates the leukotrienes from arachidonic acid and via transcellular biosynthesis is also involved in lipoxin generation. 15-Lipoxygenase generates the eoxins.
Eicosanoid biosynthesis begins when a cell is activated by mechanical trauma, cytokines, growth factors or other stimuli. (The stimulus may even be an eicosanoid from a neighboring cell; the pathways are complex.) This triggers the release of a phospholipase at the cell membrane. The phospholipase travels to the nuclear membrane. There, the phospholipase catalyzes ester hydrolysis of phospholipid (by phospholipase A2) or diacylglycerol (by phospholipase C). This frees a 20-carbon fatty acid. This hydrolysis appears to be the rate-determining step for eicosanoid formation.
The fatty acids may be released by any of several phospholipases. Of these, type IV cytosolic phospholipase A2 (cPLA2) is the key actor, as cells lacking cPLA2 are, in general, devoid of eicosanoid synthesis. The phospholipase cPLA2 is specific for phospholipids that contain AA, EPA or GPLA at the SN2 position. Interestingly, cPLA2 may also release the lysophospholipid that becomes platelet-activating factor.
Peroxidation and reactive oxygen species
Next, the free fatty acid is oxygenated along any of several pathways; see the Pathways table. The eicosanoid pathways (via lipoxygenase or COX) add molecular oxygen (O2). Although the fatty acid is symmetric, the resulting eicosanoids are chiral; the oxidations proceed with high stereoselectivity (enzymatic oxidations are considered practically stereospecific).
The oxidation of lipids is hazardous to cells, particularly when close to the nucleus. There are elaborate mechanisms to prevent unwanted oxidation. COX, the lipoxygenases and the phospholipases are tightly controlled—there are at least eight proteins activated to coordinate generation of leukotrienes. Several of these exist in multiple isoforms.
Oxidation by either COX or lipoxygenase releases reactive oxygen species (ROS) and the initial products in eicosanoid generation are themselves highly reactive peroxides. LTA4 can form adducts with tissue DNA. Other reactions of lipoxygenases generate cellular damage; murine models implicate 15-lipoxygenase in the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis. The oxidation in eicosanoid generation is compartmentalized; this limits the peroxides' damage. The enzymes that are biosynthetic for eicosanoids (e.g., glutathione-S-transferases, epoxide hydrolases, and carrier proteins) belong to families whose functions are involved largely with cellular detoxification. This suggests that eicosanoid signaling might have evolved from the detoxification of ROS.PPAR).
All three classes of prostanoids originate from PGH. All have distinctive rings in the center of the molecule. They differ in their structures. The PGH compounds (parents to all the rest) have a 5-carbon ring, bridged by two oxygens (a peroxide.) As the example in Structures of Selected Eicosanoids figure shows, the derived prostaglandins contain a single, unsaturated 5-carbon ring. In prostacyclins, this ring is conjoined to another oxygen-containing ring. In thromboxanes the ring becomes a 6-member ring with one oxygen. The leukotrienes do not have rings. (See more detail, including the enzymes involved, in diagrams at Prostanoid.)
The enzyme 5-lipoxygenase (5-LO) uses 5-lipoxygenase activating protein (FLAP) to convert arachidonic acid into 5-hydroperoxyeicosatetraenoic acid (5-HPETE), which spontaneously reduces to 5-hydroxyeicosatetraenoic acid (5-HETE). The enzyme LTA synthase acts on 5-HPETE to convert it into leukotriene A4 (LTA4), which may be converted into LTB4 by the enzyme leukotriene A4 epoxide hydrolase. Eosinophils, mast cells, and alveolar macrophages use the enzyme leukotriene C4 synthase to conjugate glutathione with LTA4 to make LTC4, which is transported outside the cell, where a glutamic acid moiety is removed from it to make LTD4. The leukotriene LTD4 is then cleaved by dipeptidases to make LTE4. The leukotrienes LTC4, LTD4 and LTE4 all contain cysteine and are collectively known as the cysteinyl leukotrienes.
Function and pharmacology
|PGD2||Promotion of sleep||TXA2||
Stimulation of platelet
Smooth muscle contraction;
inducing pain, heat, fever;
|PGF2α||Uterine contraction||LTB4||Leukocyte chemotaxis|
Inhibition of platelet aggregation;
vasodilation; embryo implantation
Anaphylaxis; bronchial smooth
|†Shown eicosanoids are AA-derived; in general, EPA-derived have weaker activity|
Eicosanoids exert complex control over many bodily systems, mainly in inflammation or immunity, and as messengers in the central nervous system. They are found in most living things. In humans, eicosanoids are local hormones that are released by most cells, act on that same cell or nearby cells (i.e., they are autocrine and paracrine mediators), and then are rapidly inactivated.
Eicosanoids have a short half-life, ranging from seconds to minutes. Dietary antioxidants inhibit the generation of some inflammatory eicosanoids, e.g. trans-resveratrol against thromboxane and some leukotrienes. Most eicosanoid receptors are members of the G protein-coupled receptor superfamily; see the Receptors table or the article eicosanoid receptors.
The ω-3 and ω-6 series
|“||The reduction in AA-derived eicosanoids and the diminished activity of the alternative products generated from ω-3 fatty acids serve as the foundation for explaining some of the beneficial effects of greater ω-3 intake.||”|
— Kevin Fritsche, Fatty Acids as Modulators of the Immune Response
Arachidonic acid (AA; 20:4 ω-6) sits at the head of the 'arachidonic acid cascade'—more than twenty different eicosanoid-mediated signaling paths controlling a wide array of cellular functions, especially those regulating inflammation, immunity and the central nervous system.
In the inflammatory response, two other groups of dietary fatty acids form cascades that parallel and compete with the arachidonic acid cascade. EPA (20:5 ω-3) provides the most important competing cascade. DGLA (20:3 ω-6) provides a third, less prominent cascade. These two parallel cascades soften the inflammatory effects of AA and its products. Low dietary intake of these less-inflammatory fatty acids, especially the ω-3s, has been linked to several inflammation-related diseases, and perhaps some mental illnesses.
- Eicosanoids at the US National Library of Medicine Medical Subject Headings (MeSH)
- Prostacyclin—PGI—was previously classified as prostaglandin and retains its old identifier.
- Eicosanoids with different letters have placement of double-bonds and different functional groups attached to the molecular skeleton. Letters indicate roughly the order the eicosanoids were first described in the literature. For diagrams for PG [A–H] see
In 1930, gynecologist Raphael Kurzrok and pharmacologist Charles Leib characterized prostaglandin as a component of semen. Between 1929 and 1932, Burr and Burr showed that restricting fat from animal's diets led to a deficiency disease, and first described the essential fatty acids. In 1935, von Euler identified prostaglandin. In 1964, Bergström and Samuelsson linked these observations when they showed that the "classical" eicosanoids were derived from arachidonic acid, which had earlier been considered to be one of the essential fatty acids. In 1971, Vane showed that aspirin and similar drugs inhibit prostaglandin synthesis. Von Euler received the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1970, which Samuelsson, Vane, and Bergström also received in 1982. E. J. Corey received it in chemistry in 1990 largely for his synthesis of prostaglandins.
The slow reacting substance of anaphylaxis comprises the cysteinyl leukotrienes. These have a clear role in pathophysiological conditions such as asthma, allergic rhinitis and other nasal allergies, and have been implicated in atherosclerosis and inflammatory gastrointestinal diseases. They are potent bronchoconstrictors, increase vascular permeability in postcapillary venules, and stimulate mucus secretion. They are released from the lung tissue of asthmatic subjects exposed to specific allergens and play a pathophysiological role in immediate hypersensitivity reactions. Along with PGD, they function in effector cell trafficking, antigen presentation, immune cell activation, matrix deposition, and fibrosis.
Leukotrienes play an important role in inflammation. There is a neuroendocrine role for LTC4 in luteinizing hormone secretion. LTB4 causes adhesion and chemotaxis of leukocytes and stimulates aggregation, enzyme release, and generation of superoxide in neutrophils. Blocking leukotriene receptors can play a role in the management of inflammatory diseases such as asthma (by the drugs montelukast and zafirlukast), psoriasis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
Action of leukotrienes
Prostanoids mediate local symptoms of inflammation: vasoconstriction or vasodilation, coagulation, pain and fever. Inhibition of cyclooxygenase, specifically the inducible COX-2 isoform, is the hallmark of NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), such as aspirin. COX-2 is responsible for pain and inflammation, while COX-1 is responsible for platelet clotting actions.
Action of prostanoids
|Medicine||Type||Medical condition or use|
Erectile dysfunction, maintaining a
patent ductus arteriosus in the fetus
Pulmonary hypertension, avoiding
|Bimatoprost||PGF2α analog||Glaucoma, ocular hypertension|
Labor induction, abortifacient
in early pregnancy
|Iloprost||PGI2 analog||Pulmonary arterial hypertension|
|Latanoprost||PGF2α analog||Glaucoma, ocular hypertension|
Stomach ulcers, labor induction,
|Asthma, seasonal allergies|
|Travoprost||PGF2α analog||Glaucoma, ocular hypertension|
|Treprostinil||PGI analog||Pulmonary hypertension|
Redness—An insect's sting will trigger the classic inflammatory response. Short acting vasoconstrictors — TXA2—are released quickly after the injury. The site may momentarily turn pale. Then TXA2 mediates the release of the vasodilators PGE2 and LTB4. The blood vessels engorge and the injury reddens.
Swelling—LTB4 makes the blood vessels more permeable. Plasma leaks out into the connective tissues, and they swell. The process also loses pro-inflammatory cytokines.
Pain—The cytokines increase COX-2 activity. This elevates levels of PGE2, sensitizing pain neurons.
Heat—PGE2 is also a potent pyretic agent. Aspirin and NSAIDS—drugs that block the COX pathways and stop prostanoid synthesis—limit fever or the heat of localized inflammation.
Since antiquity, the cardinal signs of inflammation have been known as: calor (warmth), dolor (pain), tumor (swelling) and rubor (redness). The eicosanoids are involved with each of these signs.
Role in inflammation
- Displacement—Dietary ω-3 decreases tissue concentrations of AA, so there is less to form ω-6 eicosanoids.
- Competitive inhibition—DGLA and EPA compete with AA for access to the cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase enzymes. So the presence of DGLA and EPA in tissues lowers the output of AA's eicosanoids.
- Counteraction—Some DGLA and EPA derived eicosanoids counteract their AA derived counterparts.
Dietary ω-3 and GLA counter the inflammatory effects of AA's eicosanoids in three ways, along the eicosanoid pathways:
The figure shows the ω-3 and -6 synthesis chains, along with the major eicosanoids from AA, EPA and DGLA.
Mechanisms of ω-3 action
Besides the influence on eicosanoids, dietary polyunsaturated fats modulate immune response through three other molecular mechanisms. They (a) alter membrane composition and function, including the composition of lipid rafts; (b) change cytokine biosynthesis and (c) directly activate gene transcription. Of these, the action on eicosanoids is the best explored.