The aim of the present study was to evaluate the impact of long-term estrogen replacement therapy (ERT) on the vasodilatory effect of the two peptides vasoactive intestinal polypeptide (VIP) and pituitary adenylate cyclase activating polypeptide (PACAP) in atherosclerotic coronary and cerebral arteries. Female ovariectomized homozygous Watanabe heritable hyperlipidemic rabbits were randomized to 16 weeks treatment with 17beta-estradiol or placebo. The diet was semisynthetic, thereby avoiding the influence of phytoestrogens. Artery ring segments were mounted for isometric tension recordings in myographs. Following precontraction, the dose-response relationships for VIP and PACAP were evaluated. Treatment with 17beta-estradiol significantly improved the maximum VIP-mediated vasodilation (E-max, percentage of precontraction) in proximal coronary arteries (45.8 +/- 9.6% vs. 24.1 +/- 3.7%, p <0.05). In the same artery segment, 17β-estradiol induced a significant decrease in the relative ratio between the repeated contractile response to potassium 30 and 120 mM (100 +/- 7% vs. 132 +/- 11%, p <0.05). For distal coronary arteries, there was a tendency to similar changes, but no statistical differences for the potassium or VIP responses in cerebral or distal coronary arteries were found between the two groups. 17beta-estradiol induced no changes in the PACAP-mediated vasodilation. These results suggest that long-term treatment with 17beta-estradiol improves the VIP-mediated but not the PACAP-mediated vasodilation in atherosclerotic proximal coronary arteries. (C) 2003 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.