Ovarian steroids, stem cells and uterine leiomyoma: therapeutic implications

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Uterine leiomyoma is the most common benign tumor in women and is thought to arise from the clonal expansion of a single myometrial smooth muscle cell transformed by a cellular insult. Leiomyomas cause a variety of symptoms, including abnormal uterine bleeding, pelvic pain, bladder or bowel dysfunction, and recurrent pregnancy loss, and are the most common indication for hysterectomy in the USA. A slow rate of cell proliferation, combined with the production of copious amounts of extracellular matrix, accounts for tumor expansion. A common salient feature of leiomyomas is their responsiveness to steroid hormones, thus providing an opportunity for intervention.


A comprehensive search of PUBMED was conducted to identify peer-reviewed literature published since 1980 pertinent to the roles of steroid hormones and somatic stem cells in leiomyoma, including literature on therapeutics that target steroid hormone action in leiomyoma. Reviewed articles were restricted to English language only. Studies in both animals and humans were reviewed for the manuscript.


Estrogen stimulates the growth of leiomyomas, which are exposed to this hormone not only through ovarian steroidogenesis, but also through local conversion of androgens by aromatase within the tumors themselves. The primary action of estrogen, together with its receptor estrogen receptor α (ERα), is likely mediated via induction of progesterone receptor (PR) expression, thereby allowing leiomyoma responsiveness to progesterone. Progesterone has been shown to stimulate the growth of leiomyoma through a set of key genes that regulate both apoptosis and proliferation. Given these findings, aromatase inhibitors and antiprogestins have been developed for the treatment of leiomyoma, but neither treatment results in complete regression of leiomyoma, and tumors recur after treatment is stopped. Recently, distinct cell populations were discovered in leiomyomas; a small population showed stem-progenitor cell properties, and was found to be essential for ovarian steroid-dependent growth of leiomyomas. Interestingly, these stem-progenitor cells were deficient in ERα and PR and instead relied on the strikingly higher levels of these receptors in surrounding differentiated cells to mediate estrogen and progesterone action via paracrine signaling.


It has been well established that estrogen and progesterone are involved in the proliferation and maintenance of uterine leiomyoma, and the majority of medical treatments currently available for leiomyoma work by inhibiting steroid hormone production or action. A pitfall of these therapeutics is that they decrease leiomyoma size, but do not completely eradicate them, and tumors tend to regrow once treatment is stopped. The recent discovery of stem cells and their paracrine interactions with more differentiated cell populations within leiomyoma has the potential to provide the missing link between developing therapeutics that temper leiomyoma growth and those that eradicate them.

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