1. The vascular pharmacology, physiological relevance and pathophysiological roles of the endothelium-derived vasoconstrictor peptide endothelin-1 have been unclear. These issues were investigated, in vivo in man, using infusion of drugs into the brachial artery or dorsal hand vein, with responses measured by forearm plethysmography and the hand vein displacement technique respectively.

2. Endothelin-1 is a potent and sustained constrictor of resistance and capacitance vessels in vivo in man, acting through both subtypes (ETA and ETB) of endothelin receptors. Endothelin-1 stimulates generation of vasodilator prostaglandins, but not of nitric oxide, that act to oppose its direct constrictor actions. Venoconstriction to endothelin-1 is blocked more effectively by K+-channel openers than by Ca2+-channel antagonists, suggesting a novel cellular mechanism of action for this peptide.

3. The forearm vasculature is able to convert the precursor big endothelin-1 to the mature peptide, endothelin-1, thus demonstrating the local presence of ‘endothelin-converting enzyme’ in man. Local inhibition of this enzyme, or blockade of ETA receptors, causes slow-onset forearm vasodilatation, suggesting that endogenously generated endothelin-1 contributes to basal resistance vessel tone in man.

4. Venoconstriction to endothelin-1 is selectively enhanced in patients with untreated essential hypertension. Endothelin-1 also potentiates sympathetically mediated vasoconstriction, but only in hypertensive subjects.

5. Endogenous generation of endothelin-1 plays a fundamental physiological role in the maintenance of basal vascular tone. Endothlin-converting enzyme inhibitors and endothelin receptor antagonists possess novel vasodilator properties and should represent a major therapeutic advance in cardiovascular disease.

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