Androgens are important modulators of immune cell function. The local generation of active androgens from circulating precursors is an important mediator of androgen action in peripheral target cells or tissues. We aimed to characterize the activation of classic and 11-oxygenated androgens in human peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs).
PBMCs were isolated from healthy male donors and incubated ex vivo with precursors and active androgens of the classic and 11-oxygenated androgen pathways. Steroids were quantified by liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry. The expression of genes encoding steroid-metabolizing enzymes was assessed by quantitative PCR.
PBMCs generated eight-fold higher amounts of the active 11-oxygenated androgen 11-ketotestosterone than the classic androgen testosterone from their respective precursors. We identified the enzyme AKR1C3 as the major reductive 17β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase in PBMCs responsible for both conversions and found that within the PBMC compartment natural killer cells are the major site of AKRC13 expression and activity. Steroid 5α-reductase type 1 catalyzed the 5α-reduction of classic but not 11-oxygenated androgens in PBMCs. Lag time prior to the separation of cellular components from whole blood increased serum 11-ketotestosterone concentrations in a time-dependent fashion, with significant increases detected from two hours after blood collection.
11-Oxygenated androgens are the preferred substrates for androgen activation by AKR1C3 in PBMCs, primarily conveyed by natural killer cell AKR1C3 activity, yielding 11-ketotestosterone the major active androgen in PBMCs. Androgen metabolism by PBMCs can affect the results of serum 11-ketotestosterone measurements, if samples are not separated in a timely fashion.
We show that human peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) preferentially activate 11-ketotestosterone rather than testosterone when incubated with precursors of both the classic and the adrenal-derived 11-oxygenated androgen biosynthesis pathways. We demonstrate that this activity is catalyzed by the enzyme AKR1C3, which we found to primarily reside in natural killer cells, major contributors to the anti-viral immune defense. This potentially links intracrine 11-oxygenated androgen generation to the previously observed decreased NK cell cytotoxicity and increased infection risk in primary adrenal insufficiency. In addition, we show that PBMCs continue to generate 11-ketotestosterone if the cellular component of whole blood samples is not removed in a timely fashion, which could affect measurements of this active androgen in routine clinical biochemistry.