Thrombin stimulates cultured endothelial cells (EC) to secrete stored von Willebrand factor (vWF), but the signal transduction pathways are poorly defined. Thrombin is known to elevate the concentration of intracellular calcium ([Ca2+]i) and to activate protein kinase C (PKC) in EC. Since both calcium ionophores and phorbol esters release vWF, both second messenger pathways have been postulated to participate in vWF secretion in response to naturally occurring agonists. We find that in intact human EC, vWF secretion stimulated by either thrombin or by a thrombin receptor activating peptide, TR(42-55), can be correlated with agonist-induced elevations of [Ca2+]i. Further evidence implicating calcium in the signal transduction pathway is suggested by the finding that MAPTAM, a cell-permeant calcium chelator, in combination with the extracellular calcium chelator EGTA, can inhibit thrombin-stimulated secretion. In contrast, the observation that staurosporine (a pharmacological inhibitor of PKC) blocks phorbol ester- but not thrombin-stimulated secretion provides evidence against PKC-mediated signal transduction. To examine further the signal transduction pathway initiated by thrombin, we developed novel conditions for minimal permeabilization of EC with saponin (4-8 micrograms/ml for 5-15 min at 37 degrees C) which allow the introduction of small extracellular molecules without the loss of large intracellular proteins and which retain thrombin-stimulated secretion. These minimally permeabilized cells secrete vWF in response to exogenous calcium, and EGTA blocks thrombin-induced secretion. Moreover, in these cells, thrombin-stimulated secretion is blocked by a calmodulin-binding inhibitory peptide but not by a PKC inhibitory peptide. Taken together, these findings demonstrate that thrombin-stimulated vWF secretion is transduced by a rise in [Ca2+]i and provide the first evidence for the role of calmodulin in this process.

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