The role of the sympathetic adrenergic nerves in mediating the constant tone of penile flaccidity and returning the erect penis to its flaccid state is fairly well established. However, it is not yet known whether additional nonadrenergic transmitters are involved in this process. The peptide endothelin-1 (ET-1) may be one of the factors contributing to such a control. Moreover, it has been speculated by various authors that ET-1 might be involved in the pathophysiology of erectile dysfunction. The present study was undertaken to determine whether or not there is a difference in the courses of ET-1/-2 plasma levels registered in systemic and cavernous blood cavities taken from healthy males and patients with ED during different penile conditions (flaccidity, tumescence/rigidity, detumescence). Thirty-two healthy adult males and 25 patients were exposed to visual and tactile erotic stimuli in order to elicit penile tumescence and, in the group of healthy volunteers, rigidity. Whole blood was aspirated from the corpus cavernosum and the cubital vein, and ET-1/-2 was determined in plasma aliquots by means of an enzyme-linked immunoassay (ELISA). Mean systemic and cavernous plasma level of ET-1/-2 in blood samples obtained from the volunteers was 0.2–0.7 fmol/ml. In the healthy males, no changes in ET-1/-2 levels were observed in the systemic and cavernous blood during penile tumescence, rigidity and detumescence. In the group of patients, mean plasma ET-1/-2 levels in the phase of penile flaccidity and detumescence were found to be higher in the systemic circulation than in the cavernous blood (flaccidity: 0.52 ± 0.38 fmol/ml vs. 0.48 ± 0.46 fmol/ml, respectively; detumescence: 0.53 ± 0.33 fmol/ml vs. 0.27 ± 0.11 fmol/ml, respectively). No differences in the plasma courses of ET-1/-2 were found between patients with an organogenic and psychogenic etiology of ED. In the phase of detumescence, the mean ET-1/-2 level was lower in the cavernous blood cavities taken from the patients than in the samples obtained from the healthy males. Our study revealed a difference in the profiles of ET-1/-2 registered in the cavernous blood of healthy subjects and patients with erectile dysfunction. Nevertheless, since this difference seems to be of no physiological significance, our data counteract the hypothesis of an ultimate importance of ET-1 in the control of penile flaccidity and detumescence and do not support speculations regarding an involvement of ET-1 in the pathophysiology of erectile dysfunction.
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