The use of GH to treat heart failure has received considerable attention in recent years. Although the mechanisms of its beneficial effects are unknown, it has been implicated in the regulation of apoptosis in several cell types, and cardiomyocyte apoptosis is known to occur in heart failure. We therefore decided to investigate whether GH protects cardiomyocytes from apoptosis. Preliminary experiments confirmed the expression of the GH receptor (GHR) gene in primary cultures of neonatal rat cardiomyocytes (PC), the specific binding of GH by HL-1 cardiomyocytes, and the GH-induced activation of GHR and its classical downstream effectors in the latter. That GH prevented the apoptosis of PC cells deprived of serum for 48 h was shown by DNA electrophoresis and by Hoechst staining assays in which GH reduced the percentage of cells undergoing apoptosis. Similarly, the TUNEL-evaluated pro-apoptotic effect of cytosine arabinoside (AraC) on HL-1 cells was almost totally prevented by pre-treatment with GH. Fluorescence-activated cell sorter (FACS) analysis showed apoptosis in 9.7% of HL-1 cells growing in normal medium, 21.1% of those treated with AraC and 13.9% of those treated with AraC+GH, and that GH increased the percentage of AraC-treated cells in the S/G(2)/M phase from 36.9% to 52.8%. GH did not modify IGF-I mRNA levels or IGF-I secretion in HL-1 cells treated with AraC, and the protection afforded by GH against AraC-induced apoptosis in HL-1 cells was not affected by the presence of anti-IGF-I antibodies, but was largely abolished by the calcineurin-inhibiting combination cyclosporin+FK506. GH also reduced AraC-induced phosphorylation of mitogen-activated protein kinase p38 (MAPK p38) in HL-1 cells. In summary, GH protects PC and HL-1 cells from apoptosis. This effect is not mediated by IGF-I and may involve MAPK p38 as well as calcineurin.
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