Minireview: Putting Physiology Back into Estrogens' Mechanism of Action

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Abstract

After decades of research, the mechanism by which estrogens stimulate the proliferation of epithelial cells in the endometrium and mammary gland, and in the carcinomas that arise in those tissues, is still not understood. Cells do not proliferate in response to 17β-estradiol (E2) alone, and although it is widely recognized that growth factors play a role in E2's proliferative effect, exactly how they are involved is unclear. It has long been known that the proliferation of endometrial epithelial cells is preceded by dramatic increases in blood flow and microvascular permeability, filling the subepithelial stroma with plasma and the proteins it contains, such as IGF-I, which is known to synergize with E2 in the induction of cell proliferation. The hyperpermeability is caused by vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), which is rapidly induced by E2, via the transcription factors hypoxia-inducible factor 1 and estrogen receptor α, in luminal epithelial cells in vivo. As we recently showed, VEGF is also strongly induced in endometrial cancer cells in vitro when excessive degradation of hypoxia-inducible factor 1α, caused by the abnormally high oxygen level to which cultured cells are exposed, is prevented. Putting these facts together, we now propose a new model of E2-induced proliferation in which VEGF-induced vascular hyperpermeability plays an essential role. E2 first induces the expression by endometrial epithelial cells of VEGF, which then acts in a paracrine manner to induce interendothelial cell gaps in subepithelial blood vessels, through which plasma and the proteins therein enter the adjacent stroma. Plasma carries even more E2, which circulates bound to proteins, and IGF-l, which together drive epithelial cells completely through the cell cycle.

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