One of the first lines of cutaneous defense against photoaging is (a) the synthesis of melanin and (b) the initiation of an oxidative stress response to protect skin against the harmful effects of solar radiation. Safe and selective means to stimulate epidermal pigmentation associated with oxidative stress defense are; however, scarce. Activation of the melanocortin-1 receptor (MC1R) on epidermal melanocytes represents a key step in cutaneous pigmentation initiation and, additionally, it regulates cellular defense mechanisms like oxidative stress and DNA-repair. Thus, making the activation of MC1R an attractive strategy for modulating skin pigmentation and oxidative stress. In this context, we designed and synthesized pentapeptides that act as MC1R agonists. These peptides bound, with high potency, to MC1R and activated cAMP synthesis in CHO cells expressing human MC1R. Using one lead pentapeptide, we could show that this activation of MC1R was specific as testing the activation of other G-protein coupled receptors, including the MC-receptor family, was negative. In vitro efficacy on mouse melanoma cells showed similar potency as for the synthetic MC1R agonist alpha-melanocyte stimulating hormone (NDP-alpha-MSH). Moreover, we could reproduce this activity in human skin tissue culture. The lead pentapeptide was able to induce ex-vivo protein expression of key melanogenesis markers melanocyte inducing transcription factor (MITF), tyrosinase (TYR), and tyrosinase-related protein 1 (TYRP-1). Concerning oxidative stress response, we found that the pentapeptide enhanced the activation of Nrf2 after UVA-irradiation. Our results make this pentapeptide an ideal candidate as a skin pigmentation enhancer that mimics alpha-MSH and may also have anti-photoaging effects on the skin.
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