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Alan J Conley and Barry A Ball

Historically, studies on the endocrinology of pregnancy and parturition in horses have made major contributions of relevance to mammals in general. Recent use of liquid chromatography mass spectrometry, measuring multiple steroid hormones simultaneously in blood, foetal and placental tissues throughout normal gestation, and in mares with experimentally induced placentitis, has advanced our current understanding of many of the unusual strategies seen during gestation and at foaling. This includes the stimulation of luteal steroidogeneisis by equine chorionic gonadotropin (eCG) from the endometrial cups, resulting in additional androgen and oestrogen secretion. Progesterone declines as the endometrial cups and eCG disappears, replaced by 5α-dihydroprogesterone (DHP), a potent equine progesterone receptor (PR) agonist, as the chorioallantoic placenta develops. Placental steroidogenesis thereafter is influenced by foetal pregnenolone and dehydroepiandrosterone secretion, providing substrate for 5α-pregnane and oestrogen synthesis, an unusual example of a ‘foeto-placental unit’. Foetal gonadal dehydroepiandrosterone fuels placental oestrone sulphate secretion, peaking at higher concentrations in mares than any other species known, declining steadily thereafter to term. Additional 5α-reduced (DHP) metabolites increase from mid-gestation to peak concentrations 3–5 days before foaling, declining prepartum, most likely as a result of selective loss of placental SRD5A1 (5α-reductase) expression and activity. Similar changes occur in mares with experimentally induced placentitis, which is also associated with a decreased ratio of equine PR-B:PR-A in myometrium, suggesting that progestin withdrawal is both systemic (pregnanes) and local (receptor-dependent) in mares. In addition, some steroids detected during equine pregnancy by immuno-assay are not detected by mass spectrometry, further illustrating the immense value of this technology.

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Erin L Legacki, C Jo Corbin, Barry A Ball, Kirsten E Scoggin, Scott D Stanley, and Alan J Conley

Steroidogenic enzymes in placentas shape steroid hormone profiles in the maternal circulation of each mammalian species. These include 3β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase/Δ5-4 isomerase (3βHSD) and 17α-hydroxylase/17,20-lyase cytochrome P450 (P450c17) crucial for progesterone and androgen synthesis, respectively, as well as aromatase cytochrome P450 (P450arom) that converts Δ4-androgens to estrogens. 5α-reductase is another important enzyme in equine placentas because 5α-dihydroprogesterone (DHP) sustains pregnancy in the absence of progesterone in the second half of equine pregnancy. DHP and its metabolites decline dramatically days before foaling, but few studies have investigated placental enzyme activity before or at parturition in mares. Thus, key enzyme activities and transcript abundance were investigated in equine placentas at 300 days of gestation (GD300) and post-partum (term). Equine testis was used as a positive control for P450c17 activity. Substrates were incubated with microsomal preparations, together with enzyme inhibitors, and products were measured by liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry or radiometric methods (aromatase). Equine placenta expressed high levels of 3βHSD, 5α-reductase and aromatase, and minimal P450c17 activity at GD300 compared with testis (600-fold higher). At foaling, 3βHSD and aromatase activities and transcript abundance were unchanged but 5α-reductase (and P450c17) was no longer detectable (P < 0.05) and transcript was decreased. Trilostane inhibited 3βHSD significantly more in testis than placenta, suggesting possible existence of different 3βHSD isoforms. Equine placentas have significant capacity for steroid metabolism by 5α-reductase, 3βHSD and aromatase but little for androgen synthesis lacking P450c17. Declining pre-partum 5α-reduced pregnane concentrations coincide with selective loss of placental 5α-reductase activity and expression at parturition in horses.

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Erin L Legacki, Elizabeth L Scholtz, Barry A Ball, Scott D Stanley, Trish Berger, and Alan J Conley

Liquid chromatography–tandem mass spectrometry (LC–MS/MS) allowed comprehensive analysis of various steroids detectable in plasma throughout equine gestation. Mares (n=9) were bled serially until they foaled. Certain steroids dominated the profile at different stages of gestation, clearly defining key physiological and developmental transitions. The period (weeks 6–20) coincident with equine chorionic gonadotropic (eCG) stimulation of primary corpora lutea and subsequent formation of secondary luteal structures was defined by increased progesterone, 17OH-progesterone and androstenedione, all Δ4 steroids. The 5α-reduced metabolite of progesterone, dihydroprogesterone (DHP) paralleled progesterone secretion at less than half the concentration until week 12 of gestation when progesterone began to decline but DHP concentrations continued to increase. DHP exceeded progesterone concentrations by week 16, clearly defining the luteo-placental shift in pregnane synthesis from primarily ovarian to primarily placental. The period corresponding to the growth of fetal gonads was defined by increasing dehydroepiandrosterone and pregnenolone (Δ5 steroids) concentrations from week 14, peaking at week 34 and declining to term. Metabolites of DHP (including allopregnanolone) dominated the steroid profile in late gestation, some exceeding DHP by weeks 13 or 14 and near term by almost tenfold. Thus Δ4 steroids dominated during ovarian stimulation by eCG, inversion of the ratio of progesterone: DHP (increasing 5α-pregnanes) marked the luteo-placental shift, Δ5 steroids defined fetal gonadal growth and 5α-reduced metabolites of DHP dominated the steroid profile in mid- to late-gestation. Comprehensive LC–MS/MS steroid analysis provides opportunities to better monitor the physiology and the progress of equine pregnancies, including fetal development.

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Michelle A A Wynn, Barry A Ball, Erin Legacki, Alan Conley, Shavahn Loux, John May, Alejandro Esteller-Vico, Scott Stanley, Kirsten Scoggin, Edward Squires, and Mats Troedsson

In the latter half of gestation in the mare, progesterone concentrations decline to near undetectable levels while other 5α-reduced pregnanes are elevated. Of these, 5α-dihydroprogesterone and allopregnanolone have been reported to have important roles in either pregnancy maintenance or fetal quiescence. During this time, the placenta is necessary for pregnane metabolism, with the enzyme 5α-reductase being required for the conversion of progesterone to 5α-dihydroprogesterone. The objectives of this study were to assess the effects of a 5α-reductase inhibitor, dutasteride on pregnane metabolism (pregnenolone, progesterone, 5α-dihydroprogesterone, 20α-hydroxy-5α-pregnan-3-one, 5α-pregnane-3β,20α-diol and allopregnanolone), to determine circulating dutasteride concentrations and to assess effects of dutasteride treatment on gestational parameters. Pregnant mares (n = 5) received dutasteride (0.01 mg/kg/day, IM) and control mares (n = 4) received vehicle alone from 300 to 320 days of gestation or until parturition. Concentrations of dutasteride, pregnenolone, progesterone, 5α-dihydroprogesterone, 20α-hydroxy-5α-pregnan-3-one, 5α-pregnane-3β,20α-diol, and allopregnanolone were evaluated via liquid chromatography–tandem mass spectrometry. Samples were analyzed as both days post treatment and as days prepartum. No significant treatment effects were detected in pregnenolone, 5α-dihydroprogesterone, 20α-hydroxy-5α-pregnan-3-one, 5α-pregnane-3β,20α-diol or allopregnanolone for either analysis; however, progesterone concentrations were increased (P < 0.05) sixfold in dutasteride-treated mares compared to control mares. Dutasteride concentrations increased in the treated mares, with a significant correlation (P < 0.05) between dutasteride concentrations and pregnenolone or progesterone concentrations. Gestational length and neonatal outcomes were not significantly altered in dutasteride-treated mares. Although 5α-reduced metabolites were unchanged, these data suggest an accumulation of precursor progesterone with inhibition of 5α-reductase, indicating the ability of dutasteride to alter progesterone metabolism.

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Erin L Legacki, Barry A Ball, C Jo Corbin, Shavahn C Loux, Kirsten E Scoggin, Scott D Stanley, and Alan J Conley

Equine fetuses have substantial circulating pregnenolone concentrations and thus have been postulated to provide significant substrate for placental 5α-reduced pregnane production, but the fetal site of pregnenolone synthesis remains unclear. The current studies investigated steroid concentrations in blood, adrenal glands, gonads and placenta from fetuses (4, 6, 9 and 10 months of gestational age (GA)), as well as tissue steroidogenic enzyme transcript levels. Pregnenolone and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) were the most abundant steroids in fetal blood, pregnenolone was consistently higher but decreased progressively with GA. Tissue steroid concentrations generally paralleled those in serum with time. Adrenal and gonadal tissue pregnenolone concentrations were similar and 100-fold higher than those in allantochorion. DHEA was far higher in gonads than adrenals and progesterone was higher in adrenals than gonads. Androstenedione decreased with GA in adrenals but not in gonads. Transcript analysis generally supported these data. CYP17A1 was higher in fetal gonads than adrenals or allantochorion, and HSD3B1 was higher in fetal adrenals and allantochorion than gonads. CYP11A1 transcript was also significantly higher in adrenals and gonads than allantochorion and CYP19 and SRD5A1 transcripts were higher in allantochorion than either fetal adrenals or gonads. Given these data, and their much greater size, the fetal gonads are the source of DHEA and likely contribute more than fetal adrenal glands to circulating fetal pregnenolone concentrations. Low CYP11A1 but high HSD3B1 and SRD5A1 transcript abundance in allantochorion, and low tissue pregnenolone, suggests that endogenous placental pregnenolone synthesis is low and likely contributes little to equine placental 5α-reduced pregnane secretion.

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Riley E Thompson, Aime K Johnson, Pouya Dini, Margherita Y Turco, Tulio M Prado, Christopher Premanandan, Graham J Burton, Barry A Ball, Brian K Whitlock, and Budhan S Pukazhenthi

The endometrium, the inner uterine lining, is composed of cell layers that come in direct contact with an embryo during early pregnancy and later with the fetal placenta. The endometrium is responsible for signals associated with normal reproductive cyclicity as well as maintenance of pregnancy. In the mare, functionally competent in vitro models of the endometrium have not been successful. Furthermore, the ability to study various reproductive processes in vitro may allow critical evaluation of signaling pathways involved in the reproductive diseases of animals that cannot be handled frequently, such as various wildlife species. Here we report the establishment of organoids, 3D structures, derived from fresh and frozen–thawed equine endometrium (Equus ferus caballus and E. f. przewalskii). Although organoids from domestic mares responded to exogenous hormonal stimuli, organoids from Przewalski’s horse failed to respond to exogenous hormones. The present study represents a ‘first’ for any large animal model or endangered species. These physiologically functional organoids may facilitate improved understanding of normal reproductive mechanisms, uterine pathologies, and signaling mechanisms between the conceptus and endometrium and may lead to the development of novel bioassays for drug discovery.

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Hossam El-Sheikh Ali, Kirsten E Scoggin, Rebecca Ruby, Alan Loynachan, Yatta Boakari, Claudia Fernandes, Pouya Dini, Carleigh Elizabeth Fedorka, Shavahn C Loux, Alejandro Esteller-Vico, and Barry A Ball

Cervical remodeling is a critical component in both term and preterm labor in eutherian mammals. However, the molecular mechanisms underlying cervical remodeling remain poorly understood in the mare. The current study compared the transcriptome of the equine cervix (cervical mucosa (CM) and stroma (CS)) during placentitis (placentitis group, n  = 5) and normal prepartum mares (prepartum group, n  = 3) to normal pregnant mares (control group, n  = 4). Transcriptome analysis identified differentially expressed genes (DEGs) during placentitis (5310 in CM and 907 in CS) and during the normal prepartum period (189 in CM and 78 in CS). Our study revealed that cervical remodeling during placentitis was dominated by inflammatory signaling as reflected by the overrepresented toll-like receptor signaling, interleukin signaling, T cell activation, and B cell activation pathways. These pathways were accompanied by upregulation of several proteases, including matrix metalloproteinases (MMP1, MMP2, and MMP9), cathepsins (CTSB, CTSC, and CTSD) and a disintegrin and metalloproteinase with thrombospondin type 1 motifs (ADAMTS1, ADAMTS4, and ADAMTS5), which are crucial for degradation of cervical collagens during remodeling. Cervical remodeling during placentitis was also associated with upregulation of water channel-related transcripts (AQP9 and RLN), angiogenesis-related transcripts (NOS3, ENG1, THBS1, and RAC2), and aggrecan (ACAN), a hydrophilic glucosaminoglycan, with subsequent cervical hydration. The normal prepartum cervix was associated with upregulation of ADAMTS1, ADAMTS4, NOS3 and THBS1, which might reflect an early stage of cervical remodeling taking place in preparation for labor. In conclusion, our findings revealed the possible key regulators and mechanisms underlying equine cervical remodeling during placentitis and the normal prepartum period.