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Environ Health Perspect. 2003 Mar;111(3):255-61.

Azole fungicides affect mammalian steroidogenesis by inhibiting sterol 14 alpha-demethylase and aromatase.

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  • 1Food Toxicology Section, Swiss Federal Office of Public Health, Zürich, Switzerland.


Azole compounds play a key role as antifungals in agriculture and in human mycoses and as non-steroidal antiestrogens in the treatment of estrogen-responsive breast tumors in postmenopausal women. This broad use of azoles is based on their inhibition of certain pathways of steroidogenesis by high-affinity binding to the enzymes sterol 14-alpha-demethylase and aromatase. Sterol 14-alpha-demethylase is crucial for the production of meiosis-activating sterols, which recently were shown to modulate germ cell development in both sexes of mammals. Aromatase is responsible for the physiologic balance of androgens and estrogens. At high doses, azole fungicides and other azole compounds affect reproductive organs, fertility, and development in several species. These effects may be explained by inhibition of sterol 14-alpha-demethylase and/or aromatase. In fact, several azole compounds were shown to inhibit these enzymes in vitro, and there is also strong evidence for inhibiting activity in vivo. Furthermore, the specificity of the enzyme inhibition of several of these compounds is poor, both with respect to fungal versus nonfungal sterol 14-alpha-demethylases and versus other P450 enzymes including aromatase. To our knowledge, this is the first review on sterol 14-alpha-demethylase and aromatase as common targets of azole compounds and the consequence for steroidogenesis. We conclude that many azole compounds developed as inhibitors of fungal sterol 14-alpha-demethylase are inhibitors also of mammalian sterol 14-alpha-demethylase and mammalian aromatase with unknown potencies. For human health risk assessment, data on comparative potencies of azole fungicides to fungal and human enzymes are needed.

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