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Artur Mayerhofer

In healthy men, several layers of inconspicuously flat cells and extracellular matrix (ECM) proteins build the wall of the seminiferous tubules. The cells of this wall, peritubular cells, are not well characterized. They are smooth-muscle-like and contractile and transport immotile sperm, a function important for male fertility. However, their full functional importance, especially their potential contribution to the paracrine regulation of the male gonad, is unknown. In men with impaired spermatogenesis, the architecture of the tubular wall is frequently altered. Deposits of ECM and morphological changes of peritubular cells imply that functions of peritubular cells may be fundamentally altered. To be able to study human peritubular cells and their functions, a culture method was established. It is based on small biopsies of patients with obstructive azoospermia but normal spermatogenesis (human testicular peritubular cells, HTPCs) and non-obstructive azoospermia, impaired spermatogenesis, and testicular fibrosis (HTPCFs). Results obtained from cellular studies and parallel examinations of biopsies provide insights into the repertoire of the secretion products, contractile properties, and plasticity of human peritubular cells. They produce ECM components, including the proteoglycan decorin, which may influence paracrine signaling between testicular cells. They may contribute to the spermatogonial stem cell niche via secreted factors. They are regulated by mast cell and macrophage products, and in response produce factors that can fuel inflammatory changes. They possess a high degree of plasticity, which results in hypertrophy and loss of contractile abilities. The data collectively indicate important roles of inconspicuous testicular peritubular cells in human male fertility and infertility.

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María E Matzkin, Silvia I Gonzalez-Calvar, Artur Mayerhofer, Ricardo S Calandra and Mónica B Frungieri

We have previously observed expression of prostaglandin-endoperoxide synthase 2 (PTGS2), the key enzyme in the biosynthesis of prostaglandins (PGs), in reproductively active Syrian hamster Leydig cells, and reported an inhibitory role of PGF2 α on hamster testicular steroidogenesis. In this study, we further investigated PTGS2 expression in hamster Leydig cells during sexual development and photoperiodic gonadal regression. Since PTGS2 is mostly expressed in pubertal and reproductively active adult hamsters with high circulating levels of LH and androgens, we studied the role of these hormones in the regulation/maintenance of testicular PTGS2/PGF. In active hamster Leydig cells, LH/hCG and testosterone induced PTGS2 and PGF production, and their actions were abolished by the antiandrogen bicalutamide (Bi). These results indicate that LH does not exert a direct effect on PG synthesis. Testosterone also stimulated phosphorylation of the mitogen-activated protein kinase isoforms 3/1 (MAPK3/1) within minutes and hours, but the testosterone metabolite dihydrotestosterone had no effect on PTGS2 and MAPK3/1. Because Bi and U0126, an inhibitor of the MAP kinase kinases 1 and 2 (MAP2K1/2), abolished testosterone actions on MAPK3/1 and PTGS2, our studies suggest that testosterone directly induces PTGS2/PGF in hamster Leydig cells via androgen receptors and a non-classical mechanism that involves MAPK3/1 activation. Since PGF inhibits testosterone production, it might imply the existence of a regulatory loop that is setting a brake on steroidogenesis. Thus, the androgen environment might be crucial for the regulation of testicular PG production at least during sexual development and photoperiodic variations in hamsters.

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Mónica B Frungieri, Ricardo S Calandra, Artur Mayerhofer and María E Matzkin

Prostaglandins (PGs) are synthesized through the action of the rate-limiting enzyme cyclooxygenase (COX) and further specific enzymes. The development of Cox-deficient mice in the 1990s gave insights into the reproductive roles of PGs. Female Cox-knockout mice were subfertile or infertile. Interestingly, fertility was not affected in male mice deficient in Cox, suggesting that PGs may not be critical for the functioning of the testis. However, this conclusion has recently been challenged by observations of important roles for PGs in both physiological and pathological processes in the testis. The two key somatic cell types in the testis, Leydig and Sertoli cells, express the inducible isoenzyme COX2 and produce PGs. Testicular COX2 expression in these somatic cells is regulated by hormonal input (FSH, prolactin (PRL), and testosterone) as well as by IL1β. PGs modulate steroidogenesis in Leydig cells and glucose uptake in Sertoli cells. Hence, the COX2/PG system in Leydig and Sertoli cells acts as a local modulator of testicular activity, and consequently may regulate spermatogenic efficiency. In addition to its expression in Leydig and Sertoli cells, COX2 has been detected in the seminiferous tubule wall, and in testicular macrophages and mast cells of infertile patients. These observations highlight the possible relevance of PGs in testicular inflammation associated with idiopathic infertility. Collectively, these data indicate that the COX2/PG system plays crucial roles not only in testicular physiology (i.e., development, steroidogenesis, and spermatogenesis), but more importantly in the pathogenesis or maintenance of infertility status in the male gonad. Further studies of these actions could lead to new therapeutic approaches to idiopathic male infertility.

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Rafael Barra, Gonzalo Cruz, Artur Mayerhofer, Alfonso Paredes and Hernán E Lara

Chronic cold stress applied to adult rats activates ovarian sympathetic innervation and develops polycystic ovary (PCO) phenotype. The PCO syndrome in humans originates during early development and is expressed before or during puberty, which suggests that the condition derived from in utero exposure to neural- or metabolic-derived insults. We studied the effects of maternal sympathetic stress on the ovarian follicular development and on the onset of puberty of female offspring. Timed pregnant rats were exposed to chronic cold stress (4 °C, 3 h/daily from 1000 to 1300 h) during the entire pregnancy. Neonatal rats exposed to sympathetic stress during gestation had a lower number of primary, primordial, and secondary follicles in the ovary and a lower recruitment of primary and secondary follicles derived from the primordial follicular pool. The expression of the FSH receptor and response of the neonatal ovary to FSH were reduced. A decrease in nerve growth factor (NGF) mRNA was found without change in the low-affinity NGF receptor. The FSH-induced development of secondary follicles was decreased. At puberty, estradiol plasma levels decreased without changes in LH plasma levels. Puberty onset (as shown by the vaginal opening) was delayed. Ovarian norepinephrine (NE) was reduced; there was no change in its metabolite, 3-methoxy-4-hydroxyphenylglycol, in stressed rats and no change in NE turnover. The changes in ovarian NE in prepubertal rats stressed during gestation could represent a lower development of sympathetic nerves as a compensatory response to the chronically increased NE levels during gestation and hence participate in delaying reproductive performance in the rat.

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Nina Schmid, Annika Missel, Stoyan Petkov, Jan B Stöckl, Florian Flenkenthaler, Georg J Arnold, Thomas Fröhlich, Rüdiger Behr and Artur Mayerhofer

Testicular peritubular cells (TPCs) are smooth muscle-like cells, which form a compartment surrounding the seminiferous tubules. Previous studies employing isolated human testicular peritubular cells (HTPCs) indicated that their roles in the testis go beyond sperm transport and include paracrine and immunological contributions. Peritubular cells from a non-human primate (MKTPCs), the common marmoset monkey, Callithrix jacchus, share a high degree of homology with HTPCs. However, like their human counterparts these cells age in vitro and replicative senescence limits in-depth functional or mechanistic studies. Therefore, a stable cellular model was established. MKTPCs of a young adult animal were immortalized by piggyBac transposition of human telomerase (hTERT), that is, without the expression of viral oncogenes. Immortalized MKTPCs (iMKTPCs) grew without discernable changes for more than 50 passages. An initial characterization revealed typical genes expressed by peritubular cells (androgen receptor (AR), smooth-muscle actin (ACTA2), calponin (CNN1)). A proteome analysis of the primary MKTPCs and the derived immortalized cell line confirmed that the cells almost completely retained their phenotype. To test whether they respond in a similar way as HTPCs, iMKTPCs were challenged with forskolin (FSK) and ATP. As HTPCs, they showed increased expression level of the StAR protein (StAR) after FSK stimulation, indicating steroidogenic capacity. ATP increased the expression of pro-inflammatory factors (e.g. IL1B; CCL7), as it is the case in HTPCs. Finally, we confirmed that iMKTPCs can efficiently be transfected. Therefore, they represent a highly relevant translational model, which allows mechanistic studies for further exploration of the roles of testicular peritubular cells.

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Lena Walenta, Nina Schmid, J Ullrich Schwarzer, Frank-Michael Köhn, Henryk F Urbanski, Rüdiger Behr, Leena Strauss, Matti Poutanen and Artur Mayerhofer

NLRP3 is part of the NLRP3 inflammasome and a global sensor of cellular damage. It was recently discovered in rodent Sertoli cells. We investigated NLRP3 in mouse, human and non-human primate (marmoset and rhesus macaque) testes, employing immunohistochemistry. Sertoli cells of all species expressed NLRP3, and the expression preceded puberty. In addition, peritubular cells of the adult human testes expressed NLRP3. NLRP3 and associated genes (PYCARD, CASP1, IL1B) were also found in isolated human testicular peritubular cells and the mouse Sertoli cell line TM4. Male infertility due to impairments of spermatogenesis may be related to sterile inflammatory events. We observed that the expression of NLRP3 was altered in the testes of patients suffering from mixed atrophy syndrome, in which tubules with impairments of spermatogenesis showed prominent NLRP3 staining. In order to explore a possible role of NLRP3 in male infertility, associated with sterile testicular inflammation, we studied a mouse model of male infertility. These human aromatase-expressing transgenic mice (AROM+) develop testicular inflammation and impaired spermatogenesis during aging, and the present data show that this is associated with strikingly elevated Nlrp3 expression in the testes compared to WT controls. Interference by aromatase inhibitor treatment significantly reduced increased Nlrp3 levels. Thus, throughout species NLRP3 is expressed by somatic cells of the testis, which are involved in testicular immune surveillance. We conclude that NLRP3 may be a novel player in testicular immune regulation.