04 October 2019
To date, available treatment strategies for multiple sclerosis (MS) are ineffective in preventing or reversing progressive neurologic deterioration, creating a high, and unmet medical need. One potential way to fight MS may be by limiting the detrimental effects of reactive astrocytes, a key pathological hallmark for disease progression. One class of compounds that may exert beneficial effects via astrocytes are melanocortin receptor (MCR) agonists. Among the MCR, MC4R is most abundantly expressed in the CNS and several rodent studies have described that MC4R is—besides neurons—expressed by astrocytes. Activation of MC4R in astrocytes has shown to have potent anti-inflammatory as well as neuroprotective effects in vitro, suggesting that this could be a potential target to ameliorate ongoing inflammation, and neurodegeneration in MS. In this study, we set out to investigate human MC4R expression and analyze its downstream effects. We identified MC4R mRNA and protein to be expressed on astrocytes and observed increased astrocytic MC4R expression in active MS lesions. Furthermore, we show that the novel, highly selective MC4R agonist setmelanotide ameliorates the reactive phenotype in astrocytes in vitro and markedly induced interleukin−6 and −11 production, possibly through enhanced cAMP response element-binding protein (CREB) phosphorylation. Notably, stimulation of human macrophages with medium from astrocytes that were exposed to setmelanotide, skewed macrophages toward an anti-inflammatory phenotype. Taken together, these findings suggest that targeting MC4R on astrocytes might be a novel therapeutic strategy to halt inflammation-associated neurodegeneration in MS.