Catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) is involved in the metabolism of neurotransmitters such as epinephrine, norepinephrine and dopamine. For melanocytes, the enzyme is of particular importance in preventing the formation of toxic o-quinones during melanin synthesis. It has been suggested that COMT plays a regulatory role in melanin synthesis. Indeed, when the melanin precursor molecule DHI(2C) is methylated by COMT it is no longer available for incorporation into melanin. Autodestruction by intermediates of melanin metabolism has been implicated in the aetiology of vitiligo. Therefore enzyme activities in vitiligo patients and in healthy controls were compared. Systemic COMT activities were measured using red blood cells (RBC) as starting material. However, as local alterations in COMT activity may be specifically involved in vitiligo, the enzyme activity was also measured in epidermal homogenates. Finally, to ascribe epidermal COMT activity to the responsible cell type(s), enzyme activity was measured in cultured vitiligo non-lesional melanocytes and melanocytes from healthy controls as well as in cultured keratinocytes from lesional skin and in purified keratinocytes from control skin. It was found that epidermal homogenates from vitiligo patients expressed higher levels of COMT activity than homogenates from healthy controls. Such differences were not found at the systemic level (i.e. in RBC) nor could they be explained by measurements on separately cultured epidermal cell types, indicating that the COMT activity was induced at the tissue level by extracellular factors. It is possible that elevated levels of catecholamines secreted by keratinocytes or by nerve endings in vitiliginous skin in close proximity to the epidermis cause damage to all epidermal cells, an effect which is insufficiently neutralized by elevated levels of COMT activity. Catecholamines may well be more damaging to the melanocytes than to the keratinocytes because of their slower turnover rate.
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