The role of the 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2 in human hypertension

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The 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2 (11βHSD2) enzyme inactivates 11β-hydroxy steroids in sodium-transporting epithelia such as the kidney, thus protecting the non-selective mineralocorticoid receptor (MR) from occupation by cortisol in humans. Inhibition by xenobiotics such as liquorice or mutations in the HSD11B2 gene, as occur in the rare monogenic hypertensive syndrome of apparent mineralocorticoid excess (AME), result in a compromised 11βHSD2 enzyme activity, which in turn leads to overstimulation of the MR by cortisol, sodium retention, hypokalaemia, low plasma renin and aldosterone concentrations, and hypertension. Whereas the first patients described with AME had a severe form of hypertension and metabolic derangements, with an increased urinary ratio of cortisol (THF+5αTHF) to cortisone (THE) metabolites, more subtle effects of mild 11βHSD2 deficiency on blood pressure have recently been observed. Hypertension with no other characteristic signs of AME was found in the heterozygous father of a child with AME, and we described a girl with a homozygous gene mutation resulting in only a slightly reduced 11βHSD2 activity causing ‘essential’ hypertension. Thus, depending on the degree of loss of enzyme activity, 11βHSD2 mutations can cause a spectrum of phenotypes ranging from severe, life-threatening hypertension in infancy to a milder form of the disease in adults. Patients with essential hypertension usually do not have overt signs of mineralocorticoid excess, but nevertheless show a positive correlation between blood pressure and serum sodium levels, or a negative correlation with potassium concentrations, suggesting a mineralocorticoid influence. Recent studies revealed a prolonged half-life of cortisol and an increased ratio of urinary cortisol to cortisone metabolites in some patients with essential hypertension.These abnormalities may be genetically determined. A genetic association of a HSD11B2 flanking microsatellite and hypertension in black patients with end-stage renal disease has been reported. A recent analysis of a CA-repeat allele polymorphism in unselected patients with essential hypertension did not find a correlation between this marker and blood pressure. Since steroid hormones with mineralocorticoid action modulate renal sodium retention, one might hypothesize that genetic impairment of 11βHSD2 activity would be more prevalent in salt-sensitive as compared with salt-resistant subjects. Accordingly, we found a significant association between the polymorphic CA-microsatellite marker and salt-sensitivity. Moreover, the mean ratio of urinary cortisol to cortisone metabolites, as a measure for 11βHSD2 activity, was markedly elevated in salt-sensitive subjects. These findings suggest that variants of the HSD11B2 gene may contribute to the enhanced blood pressure response to salt in some humans.

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