Teaching an old drug new tricks: Agonism, antagonism, and biased signaling of pilocarpine through M3 muscarinic acetylcholine receptor

Alexey N. Pronin, Qiang Wang, Vladlen Z. Slepak

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Pilocarpine is a prototypical drug used to treat glaucoma and dry mouth and is classified as either a full or partial muscarinic agonist. Here, we report several unexpected results pertaining to its interaction with muscarinic M3 receptor (M3R). We found that pilocarpine was 1000 times less potent in stimulating mouse-eye pupil constriction than muscarinic agonists oxotremorin-M (Oxo-M) or carbachol (CCh), although all three ligands have similar Kd values for M3R. In contrast to CCh or Oxo-M, pilocarpine does not induce Ca21 mobilization via endogenous M3R in human embryonic kidney cell line 293T (HEK293T) or mouse insulinoma (MIN6) cells. Pilocarpine also fails to stimulate insulin secretion and, instead, antagonizes the insulinotropic effect of Oxo-M and CCh-induced Ca21 upregulation; however, in HEK293T or Chinese hamster ovary-K1 cells overexpressing M3R, pilocarpine induces Ca21 transients like those recorded with another cognate G protein–coupled muscarinic receptor, M1R. Stimulation of cells overexpressing M1R or M3R with CCh resulted in a similar reduction in phosphatidylinositol 4,5-bisphosphate (PIP2). In contrast to CCh, pilocarpine stimulated PIP2 hydrolysis only in cells overexpressing M1R but not M3R. Moreover, pilocarpine blocked CCh-stimulated PIP2 hydrolysis in M3R-overexpressing cells, thus, it acted as an antagonist. Pilocarpine activates extracellular regulated kinase 1/2 in MIN6 cells. The stimulatory effect on extracellular regulated kinase (ERK1/2) was blocked by the Src family kinase inhibitor PP2, indicating that the action of pilocarpine on endogenous M3R is biased toward b-arrestin. Taken together, our findings show that pilocarpine can act as either an agonist or antagonist of M3R, depending on the cell type, expression level, and signaling pathway downstream of this receptor.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)601-612
Number of pages12
JournalMolecular Pharmacology
Issue number5
StatePublished - Nov 2017

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Medicine
  • Pharmacology


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