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With the increasing need for organ transplantation and the use of "marginal" organs, novel approaches are sought to increase the efficiency and survival of transplanted tissue. We tested the idea that treatment with the anti-inflammatory peptide, alpha-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (alpha-MSH), an endogenous hormone that does not cause marked immunosuppression but does reduce reperfusion injury, may protect allografts and prolong their survival.Donor cardiac grafts (Brown Norway) were transplanted heterotopically into the abdomen of recipient (Lewis) rats. Treatments consisted of intraperitoneal injections of Nle DPhe -alpha-MSH (NDP-alpha-MSH) or saline from the time of transplantation until sacrifice or spontaneous rejection. Allografts were removed on day 1, day 4, or at the time of rejection and examined for histopathology and expression of molecules prominent in reperfusion injury, transplant rejection, and apoptosis.NDP-alpha-MSH treatment caused a significant increase in allograft survival and a marked decrease in leukocyte infiltration. Expression of molecules such as endothelin 1, chemokines, and adhesion molecules, which are involved in allograft rejection, was significantly inhibited in NDP-alpha-MSH-treated rats.The results indicate that protection of the allograft from early injury with alpha-MSH can postpone rejection. Addition of this early protection with the peptide to usual treatment with immunosuppressive agents may, therefore, improve success of organ transplants.