CONTEXT: The success of pancreatic islet transplantation depends largely on the capacity of the islet graft to survive the initial phase immediately after transplantation until revascularization is completed. Endothelin-1 (ET-1) is a strong vasoconstrictor which has been involved in solid organ graft failure but is also known to be a potent mitogenic/anti-apoptotic factor which could also potentially enhance the survival of the transplanted islets. OBJECTIVE: Characterization of the endothelin system with regard to a potential endothelin agonist/antagonist treatment. DESIGN: Regulated expression of the endothelin system in human and rat pancreatic islets and beta-cell lines was assessed by means of immunohistochemistry, competition binding studies, western blot, RT-PCR, real-time PCR and transplant studies. RESULTS: ET-1, ETA- and ETB-receptor immunoreactivity was identified in the endocrine cells of human and rat pancreatic islets. The corresponding mRNA was detectable in rat beta-cell lines and isolated rat and human pancreatic islets. Competition binding studies on rat islets revealed binding sites for both receptor types. ET-1 stimulated the phosphorylation of mitogen-activated protein kinase, which was prevented by ETA- and ETB-receptor antagonists. After exposure to hypoxia equal to post-transplant environment oxygen tension, mRNA levels of ET-1 and ETB-receptor of human islets were robustly induced whereas ETA-receptor mRNA did not show significant changes. Immunostaining signals for ET-1 and ETA-receptor of transplanted rat islets were markedly decreased when compared to native pancreatic sections. CONCLUSIONS: In pancreatic islets, ET-1 and its receptors are differentially expressed by hypoxia and after transplantation. Our results provide the biological basis for the study of the potential use of endothelin agonists/antagonists to improve islet transplantation outcome.