Plasminogen is an abundant plasma protein that exists in various zymogenic forms. Plasmin, the proteolytically active form of plasminogen, is known for its essential role in fibrinolysis. The therapeutic targeting of the fibrinolytic system to date has been for two purposes: to promote plasmin generation for thromboembolic conditions, or to stop plasmin to reduce bleeding. However, both plasmin and plasminogen serve other important functions, some of which are unrelated to fibrin removal. Indeed, for over 40 years, the anti-fibrinolytic agent, tranexamic acid, has been administered for its serendipitously discovered skin whitening properties. Plasmin also plays an important role in the removal of misfolded/aggregated proteins and can trigger other enzymatic cascades including complement. In addition, plasminogen, via binding to one of its dozen cell-surface receptors, can modulate cell behaviour and further influence immune and inflammatory processes. Plasminogen administration itself has been reported to improve thrombolysis and to accelerate wound repair. While many of these more recent findings have been derived from in vitro or animal studies, the use of anti-fibrinolytics to reduce bleeding in humans has revealed additional clinically relevant consequences, particularly in relation to reducing infection risk that is independent of its haemostatic effects. The finding that many viruses harness the host plasminogen to aid infectivity has suggested that anti-fibrinolytic agents may have anti-viral benefits. Here we review the broadening role of the plasminogen activating system in physiology and pathophysiology and how manipulation of this system may be harnessed for benefits unrelated to its conventional application in thrombosis and haemostasis.
Charithani B Keragala, Robert L Medcalf