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E Ghigo, E Arvat, G Muccioli and F Camanni


Growth hormone-releasing peptides (GHRPs) are synthetic, non-natural peptides endowed with potent stimulatory effects on somatotrope secretion in animals and humans. They have no structural homology with GHRH and act via specific receptors present either at the pituitary or the hypothalamic level both in animals and in humans. The GHRP receptor has recently been cloned and, interestingly, it does not show sequence homology with other G-protein-coupled receptors known so far. This evidence strongly suggests the existence of a natural GHRP-like ligand which, however, has not yet been found. The mechanisms underlying the GHRP effect are still unclear. At present, several data favor the hypothesis that GHRPs could act by counteracting somatostatinergic activity both at the pituitary and the hypothalamic level and/or, at least partially, via a GHRH-mediated mechanism. However, the possibility that GHRPs act via an unknown hypothalamic factor (U factor) is still open. GHRP-6 was the first hexapeptide to be extensively studied in humans. More recently, a heptapeptide, GHRP-1, and two other hexapeptides, GHRP-2 and Hexarelin, have been synthesized and are now available for human studies. Moreover, non-peptidyl GHRP mimetics have been developed which act via GHRP receptors and their effects have been clearly demonstrated in animals and in humans in vivo. Among non-peptidyl GHRPs, MK-0677 seems the most interesting molecule. The GH-releasing activity of GHRPs is marked and dose-related after intravenous, subcutaneous, intranasal and even oral administration. The effect of GHRPs is reproducible and undergoes partial desensitization, more during continuous infusion, less during intermittent administration; in fact, prolonged administration of GHRPs increases IGF-I levels both in animals and in humans. The GH-releasing effect of GHRPs does not depend on sex but undergoes age-related variations. It increases from birth to puberty, persists at a similar level in adulthood and decreases thereafter. By the sixth decade of life, the activity of GHRPs is reduced but it is still marked and higher than that of GHRH. The GH-releasing activity of GHRPs is synergistic with that of GHRH, is not affected by opioid receptor antagonists, such as naloxone, and is only blunted by inhibitory influences, including neurotransmitters, glucose, free fatty acids, glucocorticoids, recombinant human GH and even exogenous somatostatin, which are known to almost abolish the effect of GHRH. GHRPs maintain their GH-releasing effect in somatotrope hypersecretory states such as in acromegaly, anorexia nervosa and hyperthyroidism. On the other hand, their good GH-releasing activity has been shown in some but not in other somatotrope hyposecretory states. In fact, reduced GH responses after GHRP administration have been reported in idiopathic GH deficiency as well as in idiopathic short stature, in obesity and in hypothyroidism, while in patients with pituitary stalk disconnection or Cushing's syndrome the somatotrope responsiveness to GHRPs is almost absent. In short children an increase in height velocity has also been reported during chronic GHRP treatment.

Thus, based on their marked GH-releasing effect even after oral administration, GHRPs offer their own clinical usefulness for treatment of some GH hyposecretory states.

European Journal of Endocrinology 136 445–460

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E. Ghigo, E. Arvat, E. Mazza, A. Mondardini, M. Cappa, E. E. Müller and F. Cammani


The aim of this study was to verify that the stimulatory effect of cholinergic agonists on both basal and stimulated GH release observed in the morning persists in the night. The effects of pyridostigmine (120 mg orally), a cholinesterase inhibitor, on both basal and GHRH (1 μg/kg iv) - induced GH secretion were studied in 8 healthy volunteers, aged 22-30 years. In the morning, administration of pyridostigmine induced a significant increase in basal GH levels compared with saline (area under the response curve, mean ± SEM: 277.0 ± 54.0 vs 49.7 ± 8.2 μg·l−1·h−1, p < 0.02) as well as a strong potentiation of the GHRH-induced GH release (2117.6 ± 353.0 vs 427.9 ± 87.0 μg·l−1·h−1, p < 0.02). In the night, GH secretion after pyridostigmine did not differ from saline (194.5 ± 21.9 vs 89.4 ± 28.7 μg·l−1·h−1). Moreover pyridostigmine failed to potentiate the GHRH-induced GH increase (1071.9 ± 170.4 vs 740.2 ± 150.9 μg·l−1·h−1). The pyridostigmine + GHRH-induced GH rise during the night was lower (p < 0.05) than in the morning. All together, these data seem to indicate that cholinergic neurons controlling GH secretion are already maximally stimulated at night. As cholinergic activity negatively modulates SRIH secretion, our findings suggest that a reduced somatostatinergic tone in the hypothalamus is present during the night.

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S. Loche, C. Pintor, M. Cappa, E. Ghigo, R. Puggioni, V. Locatelli and E. E. Müller

Abstract. We have evaluated the effect of acute administration of pyridostigmine bromide, a cholinesterase inhibitor, on the GHRH-induced GH rise in 11 obese children and in 8 age-matched controls. The GH response to GHRH (hpGRF 1–40, 1 μg/kg iv), evaluated both as maximum GH peak and as integrated area under the curve, was significantly lower in the obese children than in the controls. Pretreatment with pyridostigmine bromide (60 mg orally 60 min before the GHRH injection) significantly increased both baseline GH levels and the GH response to GHRH in all the obese subjects, so that their mean baseline GH, peak GH levels and integrated area under the curve after pyridostigmine bromide plus GHRH were similar to those of the control children after GHRH. Also in control children pyridostigmine bromide increased (though not significantly) baseline GH levels, and caused a significant augmentation of the GH response to GHRH. Mean peak GH levels and mean integrated area under the curve after pyridostigmine bromide plus GHRH were significantly higher in the controls than in the obese children given the same treatment. Mean baseline Sm-C levels were significantly higher in the obese than in control children. These data show that enhancement of cholinergic neurotransmission, likely in the hypothalamus, counteracts the blunted GH response to GHRH present in the obese children, and that in simple obesity the potential of the pituitary to make a secretory response to a direct GH secretagogue is preserved.

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R Giordano, E Marinazzo, R Berardelli, A Picu, M Maccario, E Ghigo and E Arvat


To evaluate long-term morphological, functional, and clinical outcome in adrenal incidentalomas.

Design and methods

A total of 118 patients (77 F and 47 M; age 62.3±1.0 years) with adrenal incidentalomas were evaluated at baseline and followed-up for median 3 years (range 1–10 years) by clinical, biochemical, hormonal, and morphological evaluation. Among them, six patients with diagnosis of subclinical Cushing's syndrome (SCS) underwent surgery.


At entry, 86% (n=102) of tumors were nonfunctioning (NF) and 14% (n=16) showed SCS. Comparing NF with SCS patients, a significantly higher percentage of dyslipidemia was found in the group of SCS patients (50 vs 23%, P=0.033). During follow-up, adrenal function remained normal in all NF patients, none of them developed subclinical or overt endocrine disease. The cumulative risk of mass enlargement was globally low (25%), but progressive up to 8 years. SCS was confirmed in all patients, and none of them shifted to overt Cushing's syndrome. The cumulative risk of developing metabolic–cardiovascular abnormalities was globally low (22%), but progressive up to 8 years and new diseases were recorded in the group of NF patients only (three patients with dyslipidemia, four with impaired fasting glucose/impaired glucose tolerance, and three with diabetes mellitus). SCS patients who underwent surgery did not show any significant clinical improvement.


The risk of mass enlargement, hormonal, and metabolic impairment over time is globally low. Conservative management seems to be appropriate, but further prospective studies are needed to establish the long-term outcome of such patients, especially for metabolic status, cardiovascular risk profile and their relationship with endocrine function.

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E Arvat, L Gianotti, F Broglio, B Maccagno, A Bertagna, R Deghenghi, F Camanni and E Ghigo


Hexarelin (HEX), a synthetic hexapeptide, has a strong and reproducible GH-releasing activity in man after intravenous, subcutaneous, intranasal and oral administration. Its effect undergoes age-related variations, being reduced in elderly subjects. In spite of evidence in animals showing that the activity of GH-releasing peptides (GHRPs) is positively influenced by oestrogens, in young adults no sex-related difference has been found in the GH response to HEX or to other GHRPs. We aimed to clarify the influence of the menopause and oestrogens on the GH-releasing activity of HEX. We studied the GH response to the acute administration of the maximal effective dose of HEX (2 μg/kgi.v.) in 24 young women (YW, age: 27·3±0·5 years; body mass index (BMI): 20·7±0·3 kg/m2). 14 post-menopausal women (PW, age: 52·9±1·2 years; BMI: 23·2±0·9 kg/m2) and 14 aged women (AW, age: 68·9±1·5 years; BMI: 21·7±0·7 kg/m2). In 10 post-menopausal women the GH response to HEX was also studied after 3 months of transdermal oestradiol treatment (delivery 50 μg/die). Basal oestrogen and GH levels in PW were lower than those in YW (oestrogen: 4·8±3·6 vs 42·0±3·4 pg/ml (mean±s.e.m.), P< 0·001; GH: 1·5±0·5 vs 2·9±0·6 μg/l, P< 0·02) and similar to those in AW (oestrogen: 1·3±0·4 pg/ml; GH: 0·9±0·2 μg/l). IGF-I levels in PW were not different from those in YW (174·4±11·9 vs 195·5±14·9 μg/l) and higher than those in AW (109·8±15·8 μg/l, P<0·01). The GH response to HEX in PW (areas under the curve±s.e.m.: 453·6±56·0 μg.min/l) was lower (P<0·002) than that in YW (1630·4±259·7 μg.min/l) while it did not differ from that in AW (781·8±189·3 μg.min/l). In PW 3-month oestrogen administration increased oestradiol levels (38·3±5·9 vs 0·8±0·4 pg/ml, p<0·001) making them similar to those recorded in YW, while it failed to modify both basal GH and IGF-I levels (GH: 1·8±0·6 vs 1·5±0·7 μg/l; IGF-I: 164·6±14·3 vs 175·0±12·3 μg/l). Also the GH response to HEX was not modified by oestradiol treatment (518·4±125·6 vs 425·4±69·3 μg.min/l). In conclusion, present data confirm the strong GH-releasing effect of Hexarelin in humans and demonstrate that its activity is already reduced in post-menopausal women to an extent overlapping that in elderly women. Moreover, oestrogen treatment is not able to restore it. Thus, the lack of oestrogens does not seem to account for the reduced somatotroph responsiveness to GHRPs in the post-menopausal period.

European Journal of Endocrinology 136 483–487

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F Broglio, A Benso, C Gottero, G Muccioli, R Deghenghi, E Ghigo and E Arvat

OBJECTIVE: Peptidyl and non-peptidyl synthetic GH secretagogues (GHS) possess significant GH-, prolactin (PRL)- and ACTH/cortisol-releasing activity after i.v. and even p.o. administration, acting via specific hypothalamo-pituitary receptors in both animals and humans. The hexapeptide hexarelin (HEX) is a paradigmatic GHS whose activities have been widely studied in humans. The heptapeptide Ala-His-d-2-methyl-Trp-Ala-Trp-d-Phe-Lys-NH(2) (alexamorelin, ALEX) is a new synthetic molecule which inhibits GHS binding in vitro, but its endocrine activity has never been studied in humans. DESIGN: In six young adults we studied the effects of 1.0 and 2.0 microgram/kg i.v. ALEX or HEX on GH, PRL, ACTH, cortisol and aldosterone levels and those of 20mg p.o. ( approximately 300 microgram/kg) on GH levels. RESULTS: Basal GH, PRL, ACTH, cortisol and aldosterone levels in all testing sessions were similar. ALEX and HEX (1.0 and 2.0 microgram/kg i.v.) induced the same dose-dependent increase of GH and PRL levels. Both ALEX and HEX induced a dose-dependent increase of ACTH and cortisol levels. The ACTH and cortisol responses to the highest ALEX dose were significantly higher than those after HEX. Aldosterone levels significantly increased after both i.v. ALEX doses, but not after HEX. The GH response to 20mg p.o. ALEX was higher, though not significantly, than that to the same HEX dose. CONCLUSION: ALEX, a new GHS, shows the same GH-releasing activity as HEX. On the other hand, ALEX seems endowed with an ACTH-releasing activity more marked than that of HEX; this evidence could explain the significant increase of aldosterone levels after its i.v. administration.

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E Arvat, B Maccagno, J Ramunni, M Maccario, R Giordano, F Broglio, F Camanni and E Ghigo

OBJECTIVE: It is known that glucagon administration elicits ACTH and cortisol responses in humans, although this effect takes place after intramuscular or subcutaneous but not after the intravenous route of administration. The mechanisms underlying this stimulatory effect on corticotroph secretion are unknown but they are unrelated to glucose variations and stress-mediated actions. DESIGN AND METHODS: To throw further light on the stimulatory effect of i.m. glucagon on the pituitary-adrenal axis, using six normal young female volunteers (26-32 years, body mass index 19.7-22.5 kg/m(2)) we studied the interaction between glucagon (GLU; 0.017 mg/kg i.m.) and human corticotropin-releasing hormone (hCRH; 2.0 microg/kg i.v.) or vasopressin (AVP; 0.17 U/kg i.m.). The interactions between hCRH and AVP on the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the GH response to GLU alone or combined with hCRH or AVP were also studied. RESULTS: GLU i.m. administration elicited a clear increase in ACTH (peak vs baseline, means+/-s.e.m.: 11.6+/-3.3 vs 4.2+/-0.3 pmol/l, P<0.05), cortisol (613.5+/-65.6 vs 436.9+/-19.3 nmol/l, P<0.05) and GH levels (11.6+/-3.4 vs 3.3+/-0.7 microg/l, P<0.05). The ACTH response to GLU (area under the curve: 426.4+/-80.9 pmol/l per 120 min) was higher than that to AVP (206.3+/-38.8 pmol/l per 120 min, P<0.02) and that to hCRH (299.8+/-39.8 pmol/l per 120 min) although this latter difference did not attain statistical significance. The GLU-induced cortisol response (28336.9+/-2430.7 nmol/l per 120 min) was similar to those after hCRH (24099.2+/-2075.2 nmol/l per 120 min) and AVP (21808.7+/-1948.2 nmol/l per 120 min). GLU and hCRH had an additive effect on ACTH (964.9+/-106.6 pmol/l per 120 min, P<0.02) and a less than additive effect on cortisol levels (35542.5+/-2720. 2 nmol/l per 120 min). Similarly, GLU and AVP had an additive effect on ACTH (825.6+/-139.6 pmol/l per 120 min, P<0.02) and an effect less than additive on cortisol levels (33059.2+/-1965.3 nmol/l per 120 min). The effects of GLU co-administered with hCRH or AVP were similar to those of the combined administration of hCRH and AVP on ACTH (906. 0+/-152.7 pmol/l per 120 min) and cortisol (34383.5+/-1669.2 nmol/l per 120min) levels. The GH response to GLU was not modified by hCRH or AVP. CONCLUSIONS: These results show that i.m. glucagon administration is a provocative stimulus of ACTH and cortisol secretion, at least as potent as hCRH and AVP. The ACTH-releasing effect of i.m. glucagon is not mediated by selective CRH or AVP stimulation but the possibility that both neurohormones play a role could be hypothesized.

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LM Seoane, S Tovar, R Baldelli, E Arvat, E Ghigo, FF Casanueva and C Dieguez

Ghrelin is a growth hormone-releasing acylated peptide from stomach. The purified peptide consist of 28 amino acids in which the serine 3 residue is n-octanoylated. Ghrelin has been reported to increase in vitro GH secretion as well as in vivo plasma GH levels in pentobarbital anaesthetized rats. The aim of this work was to characterize the stimulatory effect of Ghrelin on in vivo GH secretion in freely-moving rats. Furthermore, we compare the effect of Ghrelin with GHRH. In addition to vehicle, we administered different doses of Ghrelin (3 nmol/Kg, 12 nmol/Kg and 60 nmol/Kg); GHRH (3 nmol/Kg and 12 nmol/kg). Plasma GH levels were measured in blood samples taken at 5, 10, 15, 20, 30 and 45 min after their administration as an i.v. bolus at 0 min. Administration of Ghrelin led to an increase in plasma GH levels at all time-points tested (5, 10, 15, 20 and 30 min, P<0.01; and 45 min, P<0.05) in comparison to control untreated rats. A maximal stimulatory effect on plasma GH was observed following administration of 12 nmol/Kg of Ghrelin, the effect being similar to the one obtained with 60 nmol/Kg in terms of both AUC and mean peak GH levels. At the dose of 3 nmol/Kg GHRH and Ghrelin exhibited a similar stimulatory effect in term of both, AUC and mean peak GH levels. However following administration of a dose of 12 nmol/Kg, the effect of Ghrelin was much greater than the same dose of GHRH in terms of both AUC and mean peak GH levels. In summary, this study provides the first evidences that Ghrelin exert a marked stimulatory effect in plasma GH levels in freely-moving rats and provides further evidences that Ghrelin may play an important role in the physiological control of GH secretion.

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G Aimaretti, G Fanciulli, S Bellone, M Maccario, E Arvat, G Delitala, F Camanni and E Ghigo

OBJECTIVE: Adults with severe GH deficiency (GHD) need recombinant human growth hormone (rhGH) replacement to restore body composition, structure functions and metabolic abnormalities. The optimal rhGH dose for replacement has been progressively reduced to avoid side effects. The aim of the present study was to define the minimal rhGH dose able to increase both IGF-I and IGF binding protein (BP)-3 levels in GHD and to verify the possible change in GH sensitivity. DESIGN AND PATIENTS: To this goal, we studied the effect of 4-day treatment with 3 rhGH doses (1.25, 2.5 and 5.0 microg/kg/day) on IGF-I and IGFBP-3 levels in 25 panhypopituitary adults with severe GHD (12 males and 13 females, age: 44.5+/-3.0 years, body mass index (BMI): 27.0+/-0.9 kg/m(2)) and 21 normal young adult volunteers (NV, 12 males and 9 females, age: 30.5+/-2.0 years, BMI: 20.8+/-0.5 kg/m(2)). RESULTS: Basal IGF-I and IGFBP-3 levels in GHD were lower (P<0.001) than in NV. In NV the 1.25 microg/kg dose of rhGH did not modify IGF-I levels. The dose of 2.5 microg/kg rhGH significantly increased IGF-I levels in men (P<0.001) but not in women, while the 5.0 microg/kg dose increased IGF-I levels in both sexes (P<0.001). IGFBP-3 levels were not modified by any of the administered rhGH doses. In GHD patients, all rhGH doses increased IGF-I levels 12 h after both the first (P<0.01) and the fourth rhGH dose (P<0.001). At the end of treatment percentage increases in IGF-I were higher (P<0.001) in GHD patients than in NV. In contrast with NV, in GHD patients the IGF-I response to short-term stimulation with rhGH was independent of gender. Moreover, GHD patients showed increases in IGFBP-3 after the fourth administration of both 2.5 and 5.0 microg/kg rhGH. CONCLUSION: The results of the present study demonstrate that the minimal rhGH dose able to increase IGF-I and IGFBP-3 levels in GHD patients is lower than in normal subjects, at least after a very short treatment. This evidence suggests an enhanced peripheral GH sensitivity in GH deprivation.

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O Gualillo, JE Caminos, M Kojima, K Kangawa, E Arvat, E Ghigo, FF Casanueva and C Dieguez

OBJECTIVE: The recently isolated endogenous GH secretagogue, named ghrelin, is a gastric peptide of 28 amino acids with an n-octanoylation in the serine 3 that confers the biological activity to this factor. Ghrelin has been shown to directly stimulate GH release in vivo and in vitro and to be involved in the regulation of gastric acid secretion and motility. In the present work we have studied gender and gonadal dependency of ghrelin mRNA expression in rat stomach. DESIGN AND METHODS: We analysed ghrelin mRNA expression in rat stomach by Northern blot analysis. We also examined the effect of gonadal steroid deprivation on ghrelin mRNA expression. RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: The results obtained showed clearly that ghrelin gastric mRNA expression increased with age in young rats (up to 90 days old) but exhibited no significant sex difference at each age tested. Ghrelin mRNA levels were lowest at postnatal day 9, reaching a stable level of expression at day 40 in both female and male rats, although the increase in female rats appears much more gradual than that in males. Moreover, neither ovariectomy nor orchidectomy significantly modified ghrelin mRNA gastric levels in adult rats. In conclusion, these data indicate that ghrelin mRNA expression is associated with age and that a progressive increase is present from the perinatal period up to a stable level after puberty. Gonadal hormones did not alter ghrelin mRNA levels. Taken together, these data showed that ghrelin mRNA levels in young rats are age but not gender dependent, and are not influenced by gonadal steroids.