Connexins are ubiquitous channel forming proteins that assemble as plasma membrane hemichannels and as intercellular gap junction channels that directly connect cells. In the heart, gap junction channels electrically connect myocytes and specialized conductive tissues to coordinate the atrial and ventricular contraction/relaxation cycles and pump function. In blood vessels, these channels facilitate long-distance endothelial cell communication, synchronize smooth muscle cell contraction, and support endothelial-smooth muscle cell communication. In the central nervous system they form cellular syncytia and coordinate neural function. Gap junction channels are normally open and hemichannels are normally closed, but pathologic conditions may restrict gap junction communication and promote hemichannel opening, thereby disturbing a delicate cellular communication balance. Until recently, most connexin-targeting agents exhibited little specificity and several off-target effects. Recent work with peptide-based approaches has demonstrated improved specificity and opened avenues for a more rational approach toward independently modulating the function of gap junctions and hemichannels. We here review the role of connexins and their channels in cardiovascular and neurovascular health and disease, focusing on crucial regulatory aspects and identification of potential targets to modify their function. We conclude that peptide-based investigations have raised several new opportunities for interfering with connexins and their channels that may soon allow preservation of gap junction communication, inhibition of hemichannel opening, and mitigation of inflammatory signaling.
Copyright © 2017 by The American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.