Ghrelin and its synthetic analog hexarelin are specific ligands of growth hormone secretagogue (GHS) receptor. GHS have strong growth hormone-releasing effect and other neuroendocrine activities such as stimulatory effects on prolactin and adrenocorticotropic hormone secretion. Recently, several studies have reported other beneficial functions of GHS that are independent of GH. Ghrelin and hexarelin, for examples, have been shown to exert GH-independent cardiovascular activity. Hexarelin has been reported to regulate peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma (PPAR-γ) in macrophages and adipocytes. PPAR-γ is an important regulator of adipogenesis, lipid metabolism, and insulin sensitization.
Ghrelin also shows protective effects on beta cells against lipotoxicity through activation of phosphatidylinositol-3 kinase/protein kinase B, c-Jun N-terminal kinase (JNK) inhibition, and nuclear exclusion of forkhead box protein O1. Acylated ghrelin (AG) and unacylated ghrelin (UAG) administration reduces glucose levels and increases insulin-producing beta cell number, and insulin secretion in pancreatectomized rats and in newborn rats treated with streptozotocin, suggesting a possible role of GHS in pancreatic regeneration. Therefore, the discovery of GHS has opened many new perspectives in endocrine, metabolic, and cardiovascular research areas, suggesting the possible therapeutic application in diabetes and diabetic complications especially diabetic cardiomyopathy. Here, we review the physiological roles of ghrelin and hexarelin in the protection and regeneration of beta cells and their roles in the regulation of insulin release, glucose, and fat metabolism and present their potential therapeutic effects in the treatment of diabetes and diabetic-associated heart diseases.