Pharmacological Activation of the Melanocortin System Limits Plaque Inflammation and Ameliorates Vascular Dysfunction in Atherosclerotic Mice
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.
- Received December 13, 2013.
- Accepted April 17, 2014.
- © 2014 American Heart Association, Inc.