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J Liu, AI Kahri, P Heikkila and R Voutilainen

Adrenomedullin (ADM) is a polypeptide originally discovered in a human pheochromocytoma and is also present in normal adrenal medulla. It has been proposed that ADM could be involved in the regulation of adrenal steroidogenesis via paracrine mechanisms. Our aim was to find out if ADM gene is expressed in adrenocortical tumors and how ADM gene expression is regulated in adrenal cells. ADM mRNA was detectable by Northern blotting in most normal and hyperplastic adrenals, adenomas and carcinomas. The average concentration of ADM mRNA in the hormonally active adrenocortical adenomas was about 80% and 7% of that in normal adrenal glands and separated adrenal medulla respectively. In adrenocortical carcinomas, the ADM mRNA concentration was very variable, but on average it was about six times greater than that in normal adrenal glands. In pheochromocytomas, ADM mRNA expression was about ten times greater than that in normal adrenals and three times greater than in separated adrenal medulla. In primary cultures of normal adrenal cells, a protein kinase C inhibitor, staurosporine, reduced ADM mRNA accumulation in a dose- and time-dependent fashion (P < 0.01), whereas it simultaneously increased the expression of human cholesterol side-chain cleavage enzyme (P450 scc) gene (a key gene in steroidogenesis). In cultured Cushing's adenoma cells, adrenocorticotropin, dibutyryl cAMP ((Bu)2cAMP) and staurosporine inhibited the accumulation of ADM mRNA by 40, 50 and 70% respectively (P < 0.05), whereas the protein kinase C activator, 12-O-tetradecanoyl phorbol 13-acetate (TPA), increased it by 50% (P < 0.05). In primary cultures of pheochromocytoma cells, treatment with (Bu)2cAMP for 1 and 3 days increased ADM mRNA accumulation two- to threefold (P < 0.05). Our results show that ADM mRNA is present not only in adrenal medulla and pheochromocytomas, but also in adrenocortical neoplasms. Both protein kinase A- and C-dependent mechanisms regulate ADM mRNA expression in adrenocortical and pheochromocytoma cells supporting the suggested role for ADM as an autocrine or paracrine (or both) regulator of adrenal function.

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J Liu, P Heikkila, AI Kahri and R Voutilainen

Activin A (a homodimer of two activin betaA subunits) has been shown to induce the neuronal differentiation of rat pheochromocytoma PC12 cells. We studied activin A and its receptor gene expression in human pheochromocytomas in vivo and in vitro to clarify the potential involvement of activin A in the pathophysiology of these tumors. We first screened 20 pheochromocytomas and nine normal adrenal tissues for activin betaA mRNA expression. Northern blots hybridized with specific oligonucleotide probes detected weak signals for activin betaA transcripts in pheochromocytomas. Both type I and type II activin receptor (ActR-I, ActR-IB and ActR-II) mRNA expression was also detectable in the pheochromocytoma tissues. In primary cultures of pheochromocytoma cells, expression of activin betaA mRNA was readily detectable by Northern blotting, and secretion of activin A into the conditioned medium was confirmed by an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay. The expression of activin betaA mRNA and secretion of activin A were induced by (Bu)(2)cAMP after 1 and 3 days of treatment (all P<0.05). A protein kinase inhibitor, staurosporine, inhibited the basal and (Bu)(2)cAMP-induced accumulation of activin betaA mRNA (P<0.05). In addition, induction of chromaffin phenotype by dexamethasone also inhibited the basal and (Bu)(2)cAMP-induced expression of activin A at both mRNA and protein levels (all P<0.05). In contrast, the expression of ActR-I and ActR-IB mRNAs was not affected by these agents in cultured pheochromocytoma cells. In summary, activin betaA subunit and activin receptors are expressed in human pheochromocytomas. Production of activin A in cultured pheochromocytoma cells is induced through the protein kinase A pathway, but reduced during chromaffin differentiation. Therefore, activin A may function as a local neurotrophic factor via an auto/paracrine manner in human pheochromocytomas.

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J Arola, J Liu, P Heikkila, V Ilvesmaki, K Salmenkivi, R Voutilainen and AI Kahri

Inhibins are gonadal glycoprotein hormones whose main endocrine function is to inhibit pituitary FSH secretion. In addition to testes and ovaries, other steroid-producing organs are sites of inhibin alpha subunit expression. To study the role of inhibins in human adrenal gland, we screened a panel of 150 adrenals (10 normal adrenals, 25 adrenocortical hyperplasias, 65 adrenocortical adenomas, 30 adrenocortical carcinomas and 20 phaeochromocytomas) for inhibin alpha expression. mRNA levels of inhibin alpha subunit were studied in 57 samples and all tissues were stained immunohistochemically with an inhibin alpha subunit-specific antibody. Inhibin alpha mRNA was detected in all adrenocortical tissues. Virilizing adenomas possessed a 10-fold higher median inhibin alpha mRNA expression than did normal adrenals. Bilaterally and nodularly hyperplastic adrenals and other than virilizing adrenocortical tumours had their median inhibin alpha mRNA levels close to those of normal adrenals. Immunohistochemically, inhibin alpha subunit was detectable in all normal and hyperplastic adrenals, as well as in 73% of the adrenocortical tumours. However, the percentage of inhibin alpha-positive cells varied greatly in different tumour types. The median percentage of positive cells was 10 in non-functional and Conn's adenomas, 30 in Cushing's adenomas and 75 in virilizing adenomas. In malignant adrenocortical tumours the median percentage of inhibin alpha-immunopositive cells was 20 in non-functional carcinomas, 30 in Conn's carcinomas, 65 in Cushing's carcinomas and 75 in virilizing carcinomas. All phaeochromocytomas were negative for inhibin alpha subunit both at the mRNA level and immunohistochemically. Our data show that inhibin alpha subunit is highly expressed in both normal and neoplastic androgen-producing adrenocortical cells, with less expression in cortisol-producing and hardly any in aldosterone-producing cells. This suggests a specific role for inhibins in the regulation of adrenal androgen production. We did not find any significant difference in inhibin alpha expression between benign and malignant adrenocortical tumours. Thus inhibin alpha gene does not seem to have a tumour suppressor role in human adrenal cortex.