A ligand for the digitalis receptor located on the membrane-embedded Na,K-ATPase (NKA; EC 3.6.1.37) has been isolated from bovine hypothalamus (hypothalamic inhibitory factor; HIF) and identified as isomeric ouabain (Tymiaket al, 1993,Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci.90: 8189–8193). In analogy to cardioactive steroids (CS) derived from plants or from toad, HIF inhibits the Na/K-exchange process and the ATPase activity of isolated Na,K-ATPase although by a different molecular action mechanism. In the present work we show that, as plant-derived ouabain, HIF inhibits86Rb-uptake by isolated human lymphocytes with an IC50 of about 20 nM; above this concentration HIF reduces cell viability in contrast to ouabain. The decrease in cell viability by excess HIF is accompanied by discrete morphological alterations (mitochondrial swelling) visible by transmission electron microscopy of ultra-thin sectioned peripheral blood mononuclear cells. Taken together the results show that the hypothalamic NKA inhibitor blocks NKA of isolated human lymphocytes with high potency at nanomolar concentrations without toxicity; concentrations exceeding the ones required to block86Rb-uptake reduce cell viability, probably due to leak formation across the NKA molecule. Thus, lymphocytes constitute a potential target for HIF action and by their altered NKA status a possible messenger between the nervous and the immune system.

Abbreviations: D-PBS, Dulbecco's phosphate buffered saline; HBSS, Hank's balanced salt Solution; NKA, Na,K-ATPase

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