Oligopeptide derivatives of metenkephalin were found to stimulate growth-hormone (GH) release directly by pituitary somatotrope cells in vitro in 1977. Members of this class of peptides and nonpeptidyl mimetics are referred to as GH secretagogues (GHSs). A specific guanosine triphosphatate-binding protein-associated heptahelical transmembrane receptor for GHS was cloned in 1996. An endogenous ligand for the GHS receptor, acylghrelin, was identified in 1999. Expression of ghrelin and homonymous receptor occurs in the brain, pituitary gland, stomach, endothelium/vascular smooth muscle, pancreas, placenta, intestine, heart, bone, and other tissues. Principal actions of this peptidergic system include stimulation of GH release via combined hypothalamopituitary mechanisms, orexigenesis (appetitive enhancement), insulinostasis (inhibition of insulin secretion), cardiovascular effects (decreased mean arterial pressure and vasodilation), stimulation of gastric motility and acid secretion, adipogenesis with repression of fat oxidation, and antiapoptosis (antagonism of endothelial, neuronal, and cardiomyocyte death). The array of known and proposed interactions of ghrelin with key metabolic signals makes ghrelin and its receptor prime targets for drug development.
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