Sialoglycan recognition is a common connection linking acidosis, zinc, and HMGB1 in sepsis

Shoib S Siddiqui, Chirag Dhar, Venkatasubramaniam Sundaramurthy, Aniruddha Sasmal, Hai Yu, Esther Bandala-Sanchez, Miaomiao Li, Xiaoxiao Zhang, Xi Chen, Leonard C Harrison, Ding Xu, Ajit Varki

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Blood pH is tightly maintained between 7.35 and 7.45, and acidosis (pH <7.3) indicates poor prognosis in sepsis, wherein lactic acid from anoxic tissues overwhelms the buffering capacity of blood. Poor sepsis prognosis is also associated with low zinc levels and the release of High mobility group box 1 (HMGB1) from activated and/or necrotic cells. HMGB1 added to whole blood at physiological pH did not bind leukocyte receptors, but lowering pH with lactic acid to mimic sepsis conditions allowed binding, implying the presence of natural inhibitor(s) preventing binding at normal pH. Testing micromolar concentrations of divalent cations showed that zinc supported the robust binding of sialylated glycoproteins with HMGB1. Further characterizing HMGB1 as a sialic acid-binding lectin, we found that optimal binding takes place at normal blood pH and is markedly reduced when pH is adjusted with lactic acid to levels found in sepsis. Glycan array studies confirmed the binding of HMGB1 to sialylated glycan sequences typically found on plasma glycoproteins, with binding again being dependent on zinc and normal blood pH. Thus, HMGB1-mediated hyperactivation of innate immunity in sepsis requires acidosis, and micromolar zinc concentrations are protective. We suggest that the potent inflammatory effects of HMGB1 are kept in check via sequestration by plasma sialoglycoproteins at physiological pH and triggered when pH and zinc levels fall in late stages of sepsis. Current clinical trials independently studying zinc supplementation, HMGB1 inhibition, or pH normalization may be more successful if these approaches are combined and perhaps supplemented by infusions of heavily sialylated molecules.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2018090118
Number of pages8
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 9 Mar 2021


  • COVID-19
  • Cytokine storm
  • HMGB1
  • Neu5Ac
  • Sialic acid


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