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Eur J Biochem. 2002 May;269(10):2440-8.

Endogenous cardiac glycosides, a new class of steroid hormones.

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Institut für Biochemie und Endokrinologie, Justus-Liebig-Universität Giessen, Germany.


The search for endogenous digitalis has led to the isolation of ouabain as well as several additional cardiotonic steroids of the cardenolide and bufadienolide type from blood, adrenals, and hypothalamus. The concentration of endogenous ouabain is elevated in blood upon increased Na(+) uptake, hypoxia, and physical exercise. Changes in blood levels of ouabain upon physical exercise occur rapidly. Adrenal cortical cells in tissue culture release ouabain upon addition of angiotensin II and epinephrine, and it is thought that ouabain is released from adrenal cortex in vivo. Ouabain levels in blood are elevated in 50% of Caucasians with low-renin hypertension. Infusion over several weeks of low concentrations of ouabain, but not of digoxin, induces hypertension in rats. A digoxin-like compound, which has been isolated from human urine and adrenals, as well various other endogenous cardiac glycosides may counterbalance their actions within a regulatory framework of water and salt metabolism. Marinobufagenin, for instance, whose concentration is increased after cardiac infarction, may show natriuretic properties because it inhibits the alpha1 isoform of Na(+)/K(+)-ATPase, the main sodium pump isoform of the kidney, much better than other sodium pump isoforms. In analogy to other steroid hormones, cardiotonic steroid hormones in blood are bound to a specific cardiac glycoside binding globulin. The discovery of ouabain as a new adrenal hormone affecting Na(+) metabolism and the development of the new ouabain antagonist PST 2238 allows for new possibilities for the therapy of hypertension and congestive heart failure. This will lead in turn to a better understanding of the disease on a physiological and endocrinological level and of the action of ouabain on the cellular level as a signal that is transduced to the plasma membrane as well as to the cell nucleus.

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