The endothelin system in pulmonary arterial hypertension
Endothelin-1 (ET-1), a peptide produced primarily by vascular endothelial cells, was discovered in 1980 and it was characterized as a powerful vasoconstrictor and mitogen for smooth muscle. ET-1 binds to two types of receptors, ETA and ETB: ETA-receptors are found in smooth muscle cells, whereas ETB-receptors are localized on both endothelial cells and in smooth muscle cells. Activation of ETA- and ETB-receptors on smooth muscle cells mediates the vasoconstrictive and mitogenic effects of ET-1. Stimulation of endothelial ETB-receptors promotes ET-1 clearance and activation of NO and prostacyclin release. Pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH) is a severe condition characterized by a progressive increase in pulmonary vascular resistance leading to right ventricular failure and death. An activation of the ET-1 system has been demonstrated in both plasma and lung tissues of PAH patients as well as in animal models of PAH. The most efficient way to antagonize the ET-1 system is the use of ET-1 receptor antagonists that can block either ETA- or ETA- and ETB-receptors. These drugs are effective in animal models of PAH and have been tested in multiple clinical trials in patients with PAH. Bosentan, an orally active, dual ET-1 receptor antagonist has been shown to improve symptoms, exercise capacity, hemodynamics, echocardiographic parameters and the outcome of patients with severe PAH, and it has been approved for clinical use in many countries. The selective ETA-receptor antagonist sitaxentan has improved exercise capacity and hemodynamics of PAH patients in two preliminary studies. The main side effect of ET-1 antagonists is the increase of liver enzymes likely due to an accumulation of bile salts cytotoxic to hepatocytes. Additional trials with these drugs are currently ongoing. In conclusion, the hypothesis that the ET-1 system over-activation can be successfully antagonised in patients with PAH has been clearly demonstrated.