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Steroids. 1997 Jan;62(1):62-72.

Role of growth factors in the developmental regulation of the human fetal adrenal cortex.

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Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, University of California, San Francisco 94143-0556, USA.


Development of the human fetal adrenals is characterized by rapid growth and high levels of steroidogenic activity during the latter two-thirds of pregnancy. By midgestation, the human fetal adrenals are composed of two distinct cortical zones: the predominant fetal zone, which occupies 80-90% of the cortical volume and produces large amounts of the delta 5-steroid dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate, and the narrow definitive zone, which surrounds the fetal zone. Late in gestation, the peripheral portion of the fetal zone develops into a third, functionally distinct compartment, the transitional zone, which is the likely site of cortisol synthesis. Soon after birth, the adrenal cortex is remodeled and the fetal zone disappears. The adult cortical zones are thought to arise from the definitive zone, which persists postnatally. Development of the human fetal adrenals is regulated primarily by corticortropin (ACTH) secreted from the fetal pituitary. However, as ACTH is not a mitogen per se, its proliferative actions on human fetal adrenal cortical cells are thought to be mediated by autocrine/paracrine growth factors produced by adrenal cortical cells in response to ACTH. In addition, these growth factors appear to modulate the functional response of fetal adrenal cortical cells to ACTH. The roles of several growth factors, including the insulin like growth factors I and II (IGF-I and IGF-II), epidermal growth factor (EGF), basic fibroblast growth factor (bFGF), activin, inhibin, and the transforming growth factors alpha and beta (TGF-alpha and TGF-beta) have been examined. In cultured human fetal adrenal cortical cells, EGF, bFGF, and IGF-I and -II are mitogenic, whereas activin and TGF-beta inhibit proliferation. IGF-II, activin, and TGF-beta also modulate ACTH-stimulated steroidogenesis. Human fetal adrenal cortical cells express IGF-II, bFGF and the activin/inhibin subunits, and the abundance of mRNAs for each of these factors is up-regulated by ACTH, suggesting that these growth factors are autocrine/paracrine mediators of ACTH action. Thus, although human adrenal development is primarily regulated by ACTH, its actions appear to be mediated/modulated by a cohort of locally expressed growth factors, the net effect of which results in the unique growth and steroidogenic activity of the human fetal adrenal cortex.

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