Members of the serine protease inhibitor (serpin) superfamily play important roles in the inhibition of serine proteases involved in complex systems. This is evident in the regulation of coagulation serine proteases, especially the central enzyme in this system, thrombin. This review focuses on three serpins which are known to be key players in the regulation of thrombin: antithrombin and heparin cofactor II, which inhibit thrombin in its procoagulant role, and protein C inhibitor, which primarily inhibits the thrombin/thrombomodulin complex, where thrombin plays an anticoagulant role. Several structures have been published in the past few years which have given great insight into the mechanism of action of these serpins and have significantly added to a wealth of biochemical and biophysical studies carried out previously. A major feature of these serpins is that they are under the control of glycosaminoglycans, which play a key role in accelerating and localizing their action. While further work is clearly required to understand the mechanism of action of the glycosaminoglycans, the biological mechanisms whereby cognate glycosaminoglycans for each serpin come into contact with the inhibitors also requires much further work in this important field.
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