Introduction: In polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), there is increased formation of androgens by thecal cells. Moreover, PCOS ovaries have been shown to have decreased levels of c-fos transcription factor. We hypothesize that c-fos expression inhibits 17α-hydroxylase 17,20 lyase (CYP17) activity in the human ovary, and its decreased expression seen in PCOS may lead to elevated CYP17 transcription, resulting in increased androgen production. Objective: Our objective was to define the role of the activator protein-1 transcription factors, namely c-fos, in the regulation of CYP17 expression in theca cells. Methods: Human ovarian thecal-like tumor cells were used for all experiments. The following techniques were used: steroid quantification, mRNA extraction, microarray analysis, transfection, small interfering RNA, and immunohistochemistry. Results: Stimulation of human ovarian thecal-like tumor cells with the protein kinase A pathway activator forskolin resulted in stimulation of C19 androgen production. In contrast, treatment with the protein kinase C pathway activator tetradecanoylphorbol acetate (TPA) resulted in decreased androgen production with a shift toward C21 progesterone production. TPA also led to complete inhibition of CYP17. Microarray data showed a 37-fold increase in c-fos after treatment with TPA. Transfection with steroidogenic factor 1 resulted in an increase in CYP17 promoter activity, which was significantly inhibited in the presence of c-fos. c-fos gene silencing led to an increase in CYP17 mRNA levels. Immunohistochemical staining for c-fos in ovaries demonstrated strong staining in granulosa cells, but not theca. Conclusions: The activator protein-1 transcription factor c-fos plays a role in the inhibition of CYP17 expression. The decreased levels of c-fos expression in polycystic ovaries may be responsible for increased CYP17 levels in PCOS.
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