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T Vanttinen, J Liu, T Kuulasmaa, P Kivinen, and R Voutilainen

Activins and inhibins are structurally related glycoprotein hormones modulating pituitary FSH secretion and gonadal steroidogenesis. Activins and inhibins are also produced in the adrenal cortex where their physiological role is poorly known. Hormonally active human adrenocortical tumors express and secrete inhibins, while in mice adrenal inhibins may function as tumor suppressors. To clarify the significance of adrenal activins and inhibins we investigated the localization of activin/inhibin signaling components in the adrenal gland, and the effects of activins and inhibins on adrenocortical steroidogenesis and apoptosis.Activin receptor type II/IIB and IB, activin signal transduction proteins Smad2/3, and inhibin receptor betaglycan were expressed throughout the adrenal cortex, whereas Smad4 expression was seen mainly in the zona reticularis and the innermost zona fasciculata as evaluated by immunohistochemistry. Treatment of cultured adrenocortical carcinoma NCI-H295R cells with activin A inhibited steroidogenic acute regulatory protein and 17alpha-hydroxylase/17,20-lyase mRNA accumulation as evaluated by the Northern blot technique, and decreased cortisol, androstenedione, dehydroepiandrosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate secretion as determined by specific enzyme immunoassays. Activin A increased apoptosis as measured by a terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase in situ apoptosis detection method. Inhibins had no effect on steroidogenesis or apoptosis.In summary, activin/inhibin signaling components are coexpressed in the zona reticularis and the innermost zona fasciculata indicating full signaling potential for adrenal activins and inhibins in these layers. Activin inhibits steroidogenic enzyme gene expression and steroid secretion, and increases apoptosis in human adrenocortical cells. Thus, the activin-inhibin system may have a significant role in the regulation of glucocorticoid and androgen production and apoptotic cell death in the human adrenal cortex.