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Open Access Open Badges Research article

Expression of progesterone metabolizing enzyme genes (AKR1C1, AKR1C2, AKR1C3, SRD5A1, SRD5A2) is altered in human breast carcinoma

Michael J Lewis1, John P Wiebe1* and J Godfrey Heathcote2

Author affiliations

1 Hormonal Regulatory Mechanisms Laboratory, Department of Biology; University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada

2 Department of Pathology, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada

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Citation and License

BMC Cancer 2004, 4:27  doi:10.1186/1471-2407-4-27

Published: 22 June 2004



Recent evidence suggests that progesterone metabolites play important roles in regulating breast cancer. Previous studies have shown that tumorous tissues have higher 5α-reductase (5αR) and lower 3α-hydroxysteroid oxidoreductase (3α-HSO) and 20α-HSO activities. The resulting higher levels of 5α-reduced progesterone metabolites such as 5α-pregnane-3,20-dione (5αP) in tumorous tissue promote cell proliferation and detachment, whereas the 4-pregnene metabolites, 4-pregnen-3α-ol-20-one (3αHP) and 4-pregnen-20α-ol-3-one (20αDHP), more prominent in normal tissue, have the opposite (anti-cancer-like) effects. The aim of this study was to determine if the differences in enzyme activities between tumorous and nontumorous breast tissues are associated with differences in progesterone metabolizing enzyme gene expression.


Semi-quantitative RT-PCR was used to compare relative expression (as a ratio of 18S rRNA) of 5αR type 1 (SRD5A1), 5αR type 2 (SRD5A2), 3α-HSO type 2 (AKR1C3), 3α-HSO type 3 (AKR1C2) and 20α-HSO (AKR1C1) mRNAs in paired (tumorous and nontumorous) breast tissues from 11 patients, and unpaired tumor tissues from 17 patients and normal tissues from 10 reduction mammoplasty samples.


Expression of 5αR1 and 5αR2 in 11/11 patients was higher (mean of 4.9- and 3.5-fold, respectively; p < 0.001) in the tumor as compared to the paired normal tissues. Conversely, expression of 3α-HSO2, 3α-HSO3 and 20α-HSO was higher (2.8-, 3.9- and 4.4-fold, respectively; p < 0.001) in normal than in tumor sample. The mean tumor:normal expression ratios for 5αR1 and 5αR2 were about 35–85-fold higher than the tumor:normal expression ratios for the HSOs. Similarly, in the unmatched samples, the tumor:normal ratios for 5αR were significantly higher than the ratios for the HSOs.


The study shows changes in progesterone metabolizing enzyme gene expression in human breast carcinoma. Expression of SRD5A1 (5αR1) and SRD5A2 (5αR2) is elevated, and expression of AKR1C1 (20α-HSO), AKR1C2 (3α-HSO3) and AKR1C3 (3α-HSO2) is reduced in tumorous as compared to normal breast tissue. The changes in progesterone metabolizing enzyme expression levels help to explain the increases in mitogen/metastasis inducing 5αP and decreases in mitogen/metastasis inhibiting 3αHP progesterone metabolites found in breast tumor tissues. Understanding what causes these changes in expression could help in designing protocols to prevent or reverse the changes in progesterone metabolism associated with breast cancer.