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The role of free fatty acids in regulating the tissue availability and synthesis of sex steroids.

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Unit of Metabolic Medicine, St. Mary's Hospital Medical School, London, UK.


Sex steroids and dietary fat intake have been implicated in the growth of breast tumours. We have previously shown that the plasma free oestradiol fraction is increased in women with breast cancer and that the addition of free fatty acids (FFA) to plasma can increase the free oestradiol fraction in vitro. In the present study we have examined the distribution of oestradiol and testosterone in serum obtained from European women (EW) and Asian (Gujarati) women (GW) living in north-west London. Fat intake by these women is similar but GW, who are vegetarians, consume a greater proportion of unsaturated fats. In serum from perimenopausal GW, the free testosterone concentration was significantly higher than for EW (11.1 +/- 3.6 pmol/l vs 8.7 +/- 3.4 pmol/l, p < 0.05). Although a significant correlation was found between the free testosterone and FFA concentrations for GW (r = 0.49, p < 0.05), concentrations of sex-hormone binding globulin (SHBG) were significantly lower in GW than EW. The finding of lower SHBG concentration in GW was confirmed in a second study in postmenopausal women (EW, 60.1 +/- 34.1 nmol/l; GW, 37.8 +/- 20.5 nmol/l, p < 0.05). However, no difference in the free oestradiol fraction or concentration was detected for EW and GW and no correlations with total or individual FFA were found. It is concluded from this study that while dietary fats may have an important role in the development of breast tumours, it is unlikely to be mediated by FFA inhibiting the binding of sex steroids to plasma proteins.

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