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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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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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Alan J Conley, Erin L Legacki, C Jo Corbin, Scott Stanley, Carl R Dahlen, and Lawrence P Reynolds

Dexamethasone (DEX) initiates parturition by inducing progesterone withdrawal and affecting placental steroidogenesis, but the effects of DEX in fetal and maternal tissue steroid synthetic capacity remains poorly investigated. Blood was collected from cows at 270 days of gestation before DEX or saline (SAL) treatment, and blood and tissues were collected at slaughter 38 h later. Steroid concentrations were determined by liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry to detect multiple steroids including 5α-reduced pregnane metabolites of progesterone. The activities of 3β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (3βHSD) in cotyledonary and luteal microsomes and mitochondria and cotyledonary microsomal 5α-reductase were assessed. Quantitative PCR was used to further assess transcripts encoding enzymes and factors supporting steroidogenesis in cotyledonary and luteal tissues. Serum progesterone, pregnenolone, 5α-dihydroprogesterone (DHP) and allopregnanolone (3αDHP) concentrations (all <5 ng/mL before treatment) decreased in cows after DEX. However, the 20α-hydroxylated metabolite of DHP, 20αDHP, was higher before treatment (≈100 ng/mL) than at slaughter but not affected by DEX. Serum, cotyledonary and luteal progesterone was lower in DEX- than SAL-treated cows. Progesterone was >100-fold higher in luteal than cotyledonary tissues, and serum and luteal concentrations were highly correlated in DEX-treated cows. 3βHSD activity was >5-fold higher in luteal than cotyledonary tissue, microsomes had more 3βHSD than mitochondria in luteal tissue but equal in cotyledonary sub-cellular fractions. DEX did not affect either luteal or cotyledonary 3βHSD activity but luteal steroidogenic enzyme transcripts were lower in DEX-treated cows. DEX induced functional luteal regression and progesterone withdrawal before any changes in placental pregnene/pregnane synthesis and/or metabolism were detectable.

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Erin L Legacki, C J Corbin, B A Ball, M Wynn, S Loux, S D Stanley, and A J Conley

Mammalian pregnancies need progestogenic support and birth requires progestin withdrawal. The absence of progesterone in pregnant mares, and the progestogenic bioactivity of 5α-dihydroprogesterone (DHP), led us to reexamine progestin withdrawal at foaling. Systemic pregnane concentrations (DHP, allopregnanolone, pregnenolone, 5α-pregnane-3β, 20α-diol (3β,20αDHP), 20α-hydroxy-5α-dihydroprogesterone (20αDHP)) and progesterone) were monitored in mares for 10days before foaling (n=7) by liquid chromatography–mass spectrometry. The biopotency of dominant metabolites was assessed using luciferase reporter assays. Stable transfected Chinese hamster ovarian cells expressing the equine progesterone receptor (ePGR) were transfected with an MMTV-luciferase expression plasmid responsive to steroid agonists. Cells were incubated with increasing concentrations (0–100nM) of progesterone, 20αDHP and 3α,20βDHP. The concentrations of circulating pregnanes in periparturient mares were (highest to lowest) 3α,20βDHP and 20αDHP (800–400ng/mL respectively), DHP and allopregnanolone (90 and 30ng/mL respectively), and pregnenolone and progesterone (4–2ng/mL). Concentrations of all measured pregnanes declined on average by 50% from prepartum peaks to the day before foaling. Maximum activation of the ePGR by progesterone occurred at 30nM; 20αDHP and 3α,20βDHP were significantly less biopotent. At prepartum concentrations, both 20αDHP and 3α,20βDHP exhibited significant ePGR activation. Progestogenic support of pregnancy declines from 3 to 5days before foaling. Prepartum peak concentrations indicate that DHP is the major progestin, but other pregnanes like 20αDHP are present in sufficient concentrations to play a physiological role in the absence of DHP. The authors conclude that progestin withdrawal associated with parturition in mares involves cessation of pregnane synthesis by the placenta.

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

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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.