Pharmacological Evaluation of a Pegylated Urocortin-1 Peptide in Experimental Autoimmune Disease Models

J Pharmacol Exp Ther. 2022 Sep;382(3):287-298. doi: 10.1124/jpet.122.001151. Epub 2022 Jun 10.


Urocortin-1 (UCN1) is a member of the corticotropin releasing hormone (CRH) family of peptides that acts through CRH-receptor 1 (CRHR1) and CRH-receptor 2 (CRHR2). UCN1 can induce the adrenocorticotropin hormone and downstream glucocorticoids through CRHR1 and promote beneficial metabolic effects through CRHR2. UCN1 has a short half-life and has been shown to improve experimental autoimmune disease. A pegylated UCN1 peptide (PEG-hUCN1) was generated to extend half-life and was tested in multiple experimental autoimmune disease models and in healthy mice to determine effects on corticosterone induction, autoimmune disease, and glucocorticoid induced adverse effects. Cardiovascular effects were also assessed by telemetry. PEG-hUCN1 demonstrated a dose dependent 4-6-fold elevation of serum corticosterone and significantly improved autoimmune disease comparable to prednisolone in several experimental models. In healthy mice, PEG-hUCN1 showed less adverse effects compared with corticosterone treatment. PEG-hUCN1 peptide induced an initial 30% reduction in blood pressure that was followed by a gradual and sustained 30% increase in blood pressure at the highest dose. Additionally, an adeno-associated viral 8 (AAV8) UCN1 was used to assess adverse effects of chronic elevation of UCN1 in wild type and CRHR2 knockout mice. Chronic UCN1 expression by an AAV8 approach in wild type and CRHR2 knockout mice demonstrated an important role of CRHR2 in countering the adverse metabolic effects of elevated corticosterone from UCN1. Our findings demonstrate that PEG-hUCN1 shows profound effects in treating autoimmune disease with an improved safety profile relative to corticosterone and that CRHR2 activity is important in metabolic regulation. SIGNIFICANCE STATEMENT: This study reports the generation and characterization of a pegylated UCN1 peptide and the role of CRHR2 in UCN1-induced metabolic effects. The potency/selectivity, pharmacokinetic properties, pharmacodynamic effects, and efficacy in four autoimmune models and safety profiles are presented. This pegylated UCN1 shows potential for treating autoimmune diseases with reduced adverse effects compared to corticosterone treatment. Continuous exposure to UCN1 through an AAV8 approach demonstrates some glucocorticoid mediated adverse metabolic effects that are exacerbated in the absence of the CRHR2 receptor.

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autoimmune Diseases* / drug therapy
  • Corticosterone
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone / metabolism
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone / pharmacology
  • Glucocorticoids
  • Mice
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Models, Theoretical
  • Polyethylene Glycols / pharmacology
  • Receptors, Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone / metabolism
  • Urocortins* / metabolism
  • Urocortins* / pharmacology


  • Glucocorticoids
  • Receptors, Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone
  • Urocortins
  • Polyethylene Glycols
  • Corticotropin-Releasing Hormone
  • Corticosterone