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Recent Prog Horm Res. 1997;52:185-213; discussion 213-4.

Aromatase expression in health and disease.

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Cecil H. and Ida Green Center for Reproductive Biology Sciences, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas 75235-9051, USA.


Family 19 of the P450 superfamily is responsible for the conversion of C19 androgenic steroids to the corresponding estrogens, a reaction known as aromatization, since it involves conversion of the delta 4-3-one A-ring of the androgens to the corresponding phenolic A-ring characteristic of estrogens. Its members occur throughout the entire vertebrate phylum. The reaction mechanism of aromatase is very interesting from a chemical point of view and has been studied extensively; however, a detailed examination of structure-function relationships has not been possible due to lack of a crystal structure. Recent attempts to model the three-dimensional structure of aromatase have permitted a model that accounts for the reaction mechanism and predicts the location of aromatase inhibitors. The gene encoding human aromatase has been cloned and characterized and shown to be unusual compared to genes encoding other P450 enzymes, since there are a number of untranslated first exons that occur in aromatase transcripts in a tissue-specific fashion, due to differential splicing as a consequence of the use of tissue-specific promoters. Thus, expression in ovary utilizes a proximal promoter that is regulated primarily by cAMP. On the other hand, expression in placenta utilizes a distal promoter that is located at least 40 kb upstream of the start of transcription and that is regulated by retinoids. Other promoters are employed in brain and adipose tissue. In the latter case, class I cytokines such as IL-6 and IL-11 as well as TNF alpha are important regulatory factors. PGE2 is also an important regulator of aromatase expression in adipose mesenchymal cells via cAMP and PGE2 appears to be a major factor produced by breast tumors that stimulates estrogen biosynthesis in local mesenchymal sites. In all of the splicing events involved in the use of these various promoters, a common 3'-splice junction is employed that is located upstream of the start of translation; thus, the coding regions of the transcripts- and hence the protein-are identical regardless of the tissue site of expression; what differ in a tissue-specific fashion are the 5'-ends of the transcripts. This pattern of expression has great significance both from a phylogenetic and ontogenetic standpoint as well as for the physiology and pathophysiology of estrogen formation. Recently, a number of mutations of the aromatase gene have been described, which give rise to complete estrogen deficiency. In females this results in virilization in utero and primary amenorrhea with hypergonadotropic hypogonadism at the time of puberty. In men the most striking feature is continued linear bone growth beyond the time of puberty, delayed bone age, and failure of epiphyseal closure, thus indicating an important role of estrogens in bone metabolism in men. In both sexes the symptoms can be alleviated by estrogen administration.

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