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Eur J Endocrinol. 2000 May;142(5):472-6.

Decreased ligand affinity rather than glucocorticoid receptor down-regulation in patients with endogenous Cushing's syndrome.

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Department of Internal Medicine III, Dijkzigt University Hospital Rotterdam, Dr Molewaterplein 40, 3015 GD Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Huizenga@inw3.AZR.NL



Glucocorticoids (GCs) serve a variety of important functions throughout the body. The synthesis and secretion of GCs are under the strict influence of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis. The mechanisms of action of GCs are mediated by the intracellular glucocorticoid receptor (GR). Over the years, many studies have been performed concerning the regulation of GR expression by GC concentrations.


In the present study, we determined the characteristics of the GR in peripheral mononuclear blood leukocytes (PBML) from thirteen patients with endogenous Cushing's syndrome and fifteen control subjects, using a whole cell dexamethasone binding assay. Furthermore, cortisol concentrations were determined in order to investigate a possible relationship between serum cortisol levels and receptor characteristics.


There were no differences in mean receptor number between patients and controls. On the other hand, a significantly lower ligand affinity was identified in cells from patients with Cushing's syndrome compared with controls. A complete normalisation of the ligand affinity was observed after treatment in the only patient tested in this respect, whereas the receptor number was not affected. In patients, there was a statistically significant negative correlation between cortisol concentrations and ligand affinity, which was not found in controls.


Receptor down-regulation does not occur in PBML from patients with endogenous Cushing's syndrome. On the other hand, there seems to be a diminished ligand affinity which possibly reflects receptor modification in response to exposure to the continuously high cortisol levels in patients with Cushing's syndrome. This assumption is substantiated by the fact that in one patient a normalisation of the ligand affinity after complete remission of the disease was seen.

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