Various epidemiological studies have demonstrated a relatively low incidence of cardiovascular events in premenopausal women and its marked increment after menopause. In addition, estrogens have been postulated to exert direct anti-atherogenic effects via binding to estrogen receptors in vascular smooth muscle cells (VSMCs). However, not all postmenopausal women develop atherosclerosis despite decreased levels of serum estrogen. Therefore, we believe it is important to examine the status of estrogen metabolism in situ in the human cardiovascular system. Estrone sulfate (E1S) is a major circulating plasma estrogen that is converted into the biologically active estrogen, estrone (E1) by steroid sulfatase (STS). E1 is also sulfated and reverted into E1S by estrogen sulfotransferase (EST). These two enzymes have recently been shown to play important roles in the in situ estrogen actions of estrogen-dependent human tissues and various sex steroid-dependent tumors. STS and EST, however, have not been studied in detail in the human vascular system associated with atherosclerotic changes. In the present study, we evaluated the relative abundance of STS- and EST-immunoreactive protein and mRNA expression in human aorta using immunohistochemistry and reverse transcription followed by quantitative polymerase chain reaction in addition to enzyme activity. STS expression levels were found to be significantly higher in the VSMCs obtained from female aortas with mild atherosclerotic changes than in those with severe atherosclerotic changes and in male aortas regardless of atherosclerotic changes. EST expression levels in the VSMCs of these aortas, however, were significantly higher in female aortas with severe atherosclerotic changes and in male aortas than in female aortas with mild atherosclerotic changes. We believe it is important to examine factors regulating the expression and activity of these estrogen-metabolizing enzymes in the human aorta. Various cytokines have been proposed to function as regulators of these enzymes in other tissues. In the present study, we studied the effects of interleukin (IL)-1β, known to be produced in human atherosclerotic lesions, on the expression of these enzymes using cultured human VSMCs originally obtained from a female patient. IL-1β markedly inhibited the expression of STS mRNA and enzyme activity, but stimulated the expression of EST mRNA and enzyme activity. In addition, IL-1β also reduced E2 production from E1S and E1 in VSMCs. Results from the present study seem to suggest that the expression levels of both STS and EST mRNA and activity may be significantly associated with the degree of atherosclerotic changes in the female aorta, which may be related to cytokines produced in situ, such as IL-1β, in human atherosclerotic lesions.
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