The vascular endothelium plays a critical role in vascular health by controlling arterial diameter, regulating local cell growth, and protecting blood vessels from the deleterious consequences of platelet aggregation and activation of inflammatory responses. Circulating chemical mediators and physical forces act directly on the endothelium to release diffusible relaxing factors, such as nitric oxide (NO), and to elicit hyperpolarization of the endothelial cell membrane potential, which can spread to the surrounding smooth muscle cells via gap junctions. Endothelial hyperpolarization, mediated by activation of calcium-activated potassium (KCa) channels, has generally been regarded as a distinct pathway for smooth muscle relaxation. However, recent evidence supports a role for endothelial KCa channels in production of endothelium-derived NO, and indicates that pharmacological activation of these channels can enhance NO-mediated responses. In this review we summarize the current data on the functional role of endothelial KCa channels in regulating NO-mediated changes in arterial diameter and NO production, and explore the tempting possibility that these channels may represent a novel avenue for therapeutic intervention in conditions associated with reduced NO availability such as hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, smoking, and diabetes mellitus.
- Calcium-activated potassium channels
- Endothelial dysfunction
- Nitric oxide
- Oxidative stress