Objective: Melanocortin peptides have been shown to elicit anti-inflammatory actions and to promote vascular endothelial function by activating type 1 and 3 melanocortin receptors. Here, we addressed whether these favorable properties of melanocortins could reduce atherosclerotic plaque inflammation and improve vasoreactivity in atherosclerotic mice.
Approach and results: Low-density lipoprotein receptor-deficient mice expressing only apolipoprotein B100 were fed a high-fat diet for 8 or 16 weeks and treated with either vehicle or a stable melanocortin analog, melanotan II (MT-II, 0.3 mg/kg per day, 4 weeks). We determined plaque uptake of fluorine-18-labeled fluorodeoxyglucose as a surrogate marker for atherosclerotic plaque inflammation and vascular function of the aorta by ex vivo analyses. MT-II had no effect on body weight or composition, or plasma cholesterol levels in atherosclerotic mice. Without attenuating atherosclerotic lesion size or lesional macrophage accumulation, MT-II treatment reduced fluorine-18-labeled fluorodeoxyglucose uptake in the atherosclerotic plaques. Resident macrophages in the lesions of MT-II-treated mice were polarized toward the anti-inflammatory M2 phenotype. Systemic inflammation was also attenuated by MT-II intervention as evidenced by decreased plasma levels of proinflammatory cytokines. In terms of aortic vasoreactivity, MT-II-treated mice showed enhanced endothelium-dependent relaxations, as well as promotion of vascular sensitivity to nitric oxide-mediated vasodilation, which were markedly impaired in control mice after prolonged duration of diet exposure.
Conclusions: The present study demonstrates that pharmacological activation of the melanocortin system has therapeutic benefits in pre-established atherosclerosis by limiting plaque inflammation and promoting vascular endothelial function, which may provide a novel therapeutic approach for atherosclerosis.
Keywords: atherosclerosis; inflammation; melanocortins.
© 2014 American Heart Association, Inc.