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M Quinkler, W Oelkers and S Diederich

11beta-Hydroxysteroid dehydrogenases (11beta-HSD) are microsomal enzymes that catalyze the conversion of active glucocorticoids (GC) to their inactive 11-dehydro products and vice versa. Two isoenzymes of 11beta-HSD have been characterized and cloned in human tissues. The tissue-specific metabolism of GC by these enzymes is important for mineralocorticoid (MC) and GC receptor occupancy and seems to play a crucial role in the pathogenesis of diseases such as apparent MC excess syndrome, and may play roles in hypertension, obesity and impaired hepatic glucose homeostasis. This article reviews the literature and examines the role and importance of 11beta-HSD in humans.

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B Otto, M Tschop, W Heldwein, AF Pfeiffer and S Diederich

OBJECTIVE: The orexigenic and adipogenic peptide hormone ghrelin is predominantly produced and secreted by the stomach and seems to transduce changes in food intake to specific neuronal circuits in the brain. The activity of ghrelin also includes stimulatory effects on the corticotropic system. However, little is known about the influence of glucocorticoids on ghrelin levels. We therefore studied human plasma ghrelin levels in the presence and absence of elevated glucocorticoid levels of either endogenous or exogenous origin. METHODS: Plasma ghrelin levels were measured in five patients with chronic hypercortisolism (aged 29-58, median 46 years) due to Cushing's syndrome before and after successful surgery for the adenoma, and in eight healthy controls (aged 24-39, median 27.5 years) before and after 30 mg prednisolone (for 5 days) once a day in the morning (median body mass index (BMI) 22.7 kg/m(2)). Plasma ghrelin levels were measured with a commercially available radioimmunoassay. RESULTS: In patients with Cushing's syndrome, plasma ghrelin levels were low (median 363.2 pg/ml, range 161.9-525.7 pg/ml) and significantly increased by 26.6% (P=0.04) after successful surgery, while BMI decreased (median 26.2-24.0 kg/m(2), P=0.04). A strong negative correlation (r=-0.9, P=0.04) between changes in BMI and plasma ghrelin was observed. In healthy controls, plasma ghrelin levels (median 288.7 pg/ml, range 119.6-827.8 pg/ml) were significantly suppressed by 18.3% (P=0.04) after prednisolone treatment. CONCLUSIONS: We have shown for the first time that plasma ghrelin levels are decreased under endogenously or exogenously induced hypercortisolism, making ghrelin an unlikely candidate for causing the changes in energy balance or body composition characteristic of Cushing's disease. However, the reduced ghrelin secretion could reflect a compensation mechanism in reaction to the metabolic consequences of chronic hypercortisolism.

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S Diederich, NF Franzen, V Bahr and W Oelkers

OBJECTIVE: Severe hyponatremia due to hypopituitarism and adrenal insufficiency can be life-threatening, and treatment with glucocorticoids is very effective once the diagnosis of the underlying disorder has been made. In our experience, the diagnosis of hypopituitarism in hyponatremic patients is often overlooked. METHODS: In a retrospective study we screened the files of 185 patients with severe hyponatremia (<130 mmol/l) that had been seen in one endocrinological unit of a university hospital between 1981 and 2001 in order to describe the clinical spectrum of patients with hyponatremia and hypopituitarism including secondary adrenal insufficiency. RESULTS: In 139 cases it was possible to clearly ascribe the patients to the pathophysiological groups of (i) primary sodium deficiency, (ii) edematous disorders, and (iii) normovolemic disorders including the "syndrome of inappropriate secretion of antidiuretic hormone" (SIADH). Twenty-eight patients with severe "normovolemic hyponatremia" (serum sodium: 116+/-7 mmol/l, mean+/-s.d.) had hypopituitarism and secondary adrenal insufficiency as shown by basal cortisol measurements and dynamic tests of adrenal function. In 25 cases of this group hypopituitarism (mostly due to empty sella, Sheehan's syndrome and pituitary tumors) had not been recognized previously, and in 12 cases recurrent hyponatremia during previous hospital admissions (up to four times) could be documented. The mean age of these patients (21 women, seven men) was 68 Years. The most frequently occurring clinical signs were missing or scanty pubic and axillary hair, pale and doughy skin, and small testicles in the men. Frequent symptoms like nausea and vomiting, confusion, disorientation, somnolence or coma were similar to those in 91 patients with SIADH. Basal serum cortisol levels in the acutely ill state ranged from 20 to 439 nmol/l (mean+/-s.d.: 157+/-123), while in 30 other severely hyponatremic patients it ranged from 274 to 1732 nmol/l (732+/-351 nmol/l). In most patients with hyponatremic hypopituitarism, plasma antidiuretic hormone levels were inappropriately high, probably due to a failure of endogenous cortisol to suppress the hormone in a stressful situation. All patients recovered after low-dose hydrocortisone substitution. Most patients had other pituitary hormone deficiencies and were appropriately substituted subsequently. CONCLUSIONS: Hypopituitarism including secondary adrenal insufficiency seems to be a frequently overlooked cause of severe hyponatremia. A high level of suspicion is the best way to recognize the underlying disorder. Treatment with hydrocortisone is very effective.

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S Diederich, M Quinkler, K Miller, P Heilmann, M Schöneshöfer and W Oelkers

Diederich S, Quinkler M, Miller K, Heilmann P, Schöneshöfer M, Oelkers W. Human kidney 11βhydroxysteroid dehydrogenase: regulation by adrenocorticotropin? Eur J Endocrinol 1996;134:301–7. ISSN 0804–4643

In ectopic adrenocorticotropin (ACTH) syndrome (EAS) with higher ACTH levels than in pituitary Cushing's syndrome and during ACTH infusion, the ratio of cortisol to cortisone in plasma and urine is increased, suggesting inhibition of renal 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase (11β-HSD) by ACTH or by ACTH-dependent steroids. Measuring the conversion of cortisol to cortisone by human kidney slices under different conditions, we tested the possibility of 11β-HSD regulation by ACTH and corticosteroids. Slices prepared from unaffected parts of kidneys removed because of renal cell carcinoma were incubated with unlabeled or labeled cortisol, and cortisol and cortisone were quantitated after HPLC separation by UV or radioactive detection. The 11β-HSD activity was not influenced by incubation with increasing concentrations (10−12–10−9 mol/l) of ACTH (1–24 or 1–39) for 1 h. Among 12 ACTH-dependent steroids tested (10−9–10−6 mol/l), only corticosterone (IC50 = 2 × 10−7 mol/l), 18-OH-corticosterone and 11βOH-androstenedione showed a significant dose-dependent inhibition of 11β-HSD activity. The percentage conversion rate of cortisol to cortisone was concentration dependent over the whole range of cortisol concentrations tested (10−8–10−5 mol/l). A direct inhibitory effect of ACTH on 11β-HSD is, therefore, unlikely. The only steroids inhibiting the conversion of cortisol to cortisone are natural substrates for 11β-HSD Kinetic studies show a saturation of the enzyme at high cortisol concentrations. Thus, the reduced percentage renal cortisol inactivation in EAS seems to be due mainly to overload of the enzyme with endogenous substrates (cortisol, corticosterone and others) rather than to direct inhibition of 11β-HSD by ACTH or ACTHdependent steroids, not being substrates of 11β-HSD.

S Diederich, Department of Endocrinology, Klinikum Benjamin Franklin, Freie Universität Berlin, Hindenburgdamm 30, 12200 Berlin, Germany

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V Bahr, C Bumke-Vogt, J Gotze, AF Pfeiffer and S Diederich

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Julia Schulz, Kathrin R Frey, Mark S Cooper, Kathrin Zopf, Manfred Ventz, Sven Diederich and Marcus Quinkler


Individuals with primary adrenal insufficiency (PAI) or congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH) receive life-long glucocorticoid (GC) replacement therapy. Current daily GC doses are still higher than the reported adrenal cortisol production rate. This GC excess could result in long-term morbidities such as osteoporosis. No prospective trials have investigated the long-term effect of GC dose changes in PAI and CAH patients.


This is a prospective and longitudinal study including 57 subjects with PAI (42 women) and 33 with CAH (21 women). Bone mineral density (BMD) was measured by dual energy X-ray absorptiometry at baseline and after 2 years. Subjects were divided into three groups (similar baseline characteristics) depending on changes in daily hydrocortisone equivalent dose (group 1: unchanged 25.2±8.2 mg (mean±s.d., n=50); group 2: increased 18.7±10.3 to 25.9±12.0 mg (n=13); group 3: decreased 30.8±8.5 to 21.4±7.2 mg (n=27)).


Subjects in group 1 showed normal lumbar and femoral Z-scores which were unchanged over time. Group 2 subjects showed a significant decrease in femoral neck Z-scores over time (−0.15±1.1 to −0.37±1.0 (P<0.05)), whereas group 3 subjects showed a significant increase in lumbar spine and hip Z-scores (L1–L4: −0.93±1.2 to –0.65±1.5 (P<0.05); total hip: −0.40±1.0 to −0.28±1.0 (P<0.05)). No changes in BMI over time were seen within any group. Reduction in GC dose did not increase the risk of adrenal crisis.


This study demonstrates for the first time that cautious reduction in hydrocortisone equivalent doses leads to increases in BMD, whereas dose increments reduced BMD. These data emphasize the need for the lowest possible GC replacement dose in AI patients to maintain health and avoid long-term adverse effects.

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S Diederich, C Grossmann, B Hanke, M Quinkler, M Herrmann, V Bahr and W Oelkers

OBJECTIVE: Selective inhibitors of 11beta-hydroxysteroid-dehydrogenase type I may be of therapeutical interest for two reasons: i) 9alpha-Fluorinated 11-dehydrosteroids like 11-dehydro-dexamethasone (DH-D) are rapidly activated by human kidney 11beta-hydroxysteroid-dehydrogenase type II (11beta-HSD-II) to dexamethasone (D). If the same reaction by hepatic 11beta-HSD-I could be selectively inhibited, DH-D could be used for selective renal immunosuppressive therapy. ii) Reduction of cortisone to cortisol in the liver may increase insulin resistance in type 2 diabetes mellitus, and inhibition of the enzyme may lead to a decrease in gluconeogenesis. Therefore, we characterized the metabolism of DH-D by human hepatic 11beta-HSD-I and tried to find a selective inhibitor of this isoenzyme. METHODS: For kinetic analysis of 11beta-HSD-I, we used microsomes prepared from unaffected parts of liver segments, resected because of hepatocarcinoma or metastatic disease. For inhibition experiments, we also tested 11beta-HSD-II activity with human kidney cortex microsomes. The inhibitory potency of several compounds was evaluated for oxidation and reduction in concentrations from 10(-9) to 10(-5)mol/l. RESULTS: Whereas D was not oxidized by human liver microsomes at all, cortisol was oxidized to cortisone with a maximum velocity (V(max)) of 95pmol/mg per min. The reduction of DH-D to D (V(max)=742pmol/mg per min, Michaelis--Menten constant (K(m))=1.6 micromol/l) was faster than that of cortisone to cortisol (V(max)=187pmol/mg per min). All reactions tested in liver microsomes showed the characteristics of 11beta-HSD-I: K(m) values in the micromolar range, preferred cosubstrate NADP(H), no product inhibition. Of the substances tested for inhibition of 11beta-HSD-I and -II, chenodeoxycholic acid was the only one that selectively inhibited 11beta-HSD-I (IC(50) for reduction: 2.8x10(-6)mol/l, IC(50) for oxidation: 4.4x10(-6)mol/l), whereas ketoconazole preferentially inhibited oxidation and reduction reactions catalyzed by 11beta-HSD-II. Metyrapone, which is reduced to metyrapol by hepatic 11beta-HSD-I, inhibited steroid reductase activity of 11beta-HSD-I and -II and oxidative activity of 11beta-HSD-II. These findings can be explained by substrate competition for reductase reactions and by product inhibition of the oxidation, which is a well-known characteristic of 11beta-HSD-II. CONCLUSIONS: Our in vitro results may offer a new concept for renal glucocorticoid targeting. Oral administration of small amounts of DH-D (low substrate affinity for 11beta-HSD-I) in combination with chenodeoxycholic acid (selective inhibition of 11beta-HSD-I) may prevent hepatic first pass reduction of DH-D, thus allowing selective activation of DH-D to D by the high affinity 11beta-HSD-II in the kidney. Moreover, selective inhibitors of the hepatic 11beta-HSD-I, like chenodeoxycholic acid, may become useful in the therapy of patients with hepatic insulin resistance including diabetes mellitus type II, because cortisol enhances gluconeogenesis.

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C Grossmann, T Scholz, M Rochel, C Bumke-Vogt, W Oelkers, AF Pfeiffer, S Diederich and V Bahr

BACKGROUND: Glucocorticoids (GCs) are commonly used for long-term medication in immunosuppressive and anti-inflammatory therapy. However, the data describing gluco- and mineralo-corticoid (MC) properties of widely applied synthetic GCs are often based on diverse clinical observations and on a variety of in vitro tests under various conditions, which makes a quantitative comparison questionable. METHOD: We compared MC and GC properties of different steroids, often used in clinical practice, in the same in vitro test system (luciferase transactivation assay in CV-1 cells transfected with either hMR or hGRalpha expression vectors) complemented by a system to test the steroid binding affinities at the hMR (protein expression in T7-coupled rabbit reticulocyte lysate). RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS: While the potency of a GC is increased by an 11-hydroxy group, both its potency and its selectivity are increased by the Delta1-dehydro-configuration and a hydrophobic residue in position 16 (16-methylene, 16alpha-methyl or 16beta-methyl group). Almost ideal GCs in terms of missing MC effects, as defined by our in vitro assay, are therefore prednylidene, budesonide, beclomethasone and betamethasone.The MC potency of a steroid is increased by a 9alpha- or a 6alpha-fluoro substituent. A hydrophilic substituent in position 16 (like 16-hydroxylation in triamcinolone) decreases both MC and GC properties. As no substituent that leads to an isolated reduction of GC activity could be characterized in our experiments, 9alpha-fluorocortisol, the most frequently used steroid for MC substitution, seems to be the best choice of available steroids for this purpose.

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M Quinkler, B Meyer, C Bumke-Vogt, C Grossmann, U Gruber, W Oelkers, S Diederich and V Bahr

OBJECTIVE: Progesterone binds to the human mineralocorticoid receptor (hMR) with nearly the same affinity as do aldosterone and cortisol, but confers only low agonistic activity. It is still unclear how aldosterone can act as a mineralocorticoid in situations with high progesterone concentrations, e.g. pregnancy. One mechanism could be conversion of progesterone to inactive compounds in hMR target tissues. DESIGN: We analyzed the agonist and antagonist activities of 16 progesterone metabolites by their binding characteristics for hMR as well as functional studies assessing transactivation. METHODS: We studied binding affinity using hMR expressed in a T7-coupled rabbit reticulocyte lysate system. We used co-transfection of an hMR expression vector together with a luciferase reporter gene in CV-1 cells to investigate agonistic and antagonistic properties. RESULTS: Progesterone and 11beta-OH-progesterone (11beta-OH-P) showed a slightly higher binding affinity than cortisol, deoxycorticosterone and aldosterone. 20alpha-dihydro(DH)-P, 5alpha-DH-P and 17alpha-OH-P had a 3- to 10-fold lower binding potency. All other progesterone metabolites showed a weak affinity for hMR. 20alpha-DH-P exhibited the strongest agonistic potency among the metabolites tested, reaching 11.5% of aldosterone transactivation. The agonistic activity of 11beta-OH-P, 11alpha-OH-P and 17alpha-OH-P was 9, 5.1 and 4.1% respectively. At a concentration of 100 nmol/l, progesterone, 17alpha-OH-P and 20alpha-DH-P inhibit nearly 75, 40 and 35% of the transactivation by aldosterone respectively. All other progesterone metabolites tested demonstrate weaker affinity, and agonistic and antagonistic potency. CONCLUSIONS: The binding affinity for hMR and the agonistic and antagonistic activity diminish with increasing reduction of the progesterone molecule at C20, C17 and at ring A. We assume that progesterone metabolism to these compounds is a possible protective mechanism for hMR. 17alpha-OH-P is a strong hMR antagonist and could exacerbate mineralocorticoid deficiency in patients with congenital adrenal hyperplasia.

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M A Arafat, B Otto, H Rochlitz, M Tschöp, V Bähr, M Möhlig, S Diederich, J Spranger and A F H Pfeiffer

Objective: It is well known that i.m. glucagon administration stimulates GH and cortisol release in humans, although the mechanisms are unclear. These effects are similar to those described for ghrelin on somatotroph and corticotroph function. The aim of the present study was to investigate the role of ghrelin in mediating the stimulatory effects of glucagon and to evaluate the effect of glucagon on ghrelin secretion.

Design and methods: We studied the endocrine and metabolic response to i.m. glucagon administration in 24 subjects (14 men, 10 women; age 19–65 years; body mass index, 25.3 ± 1 kg/m2), who were shown to have an intact anterior pituitary function as evaluated before enclosure.

Results: Serum ghrelin concentrations fell significantly at 30, 60, 120 and 180 min after glucagon administration (means ± s.e.m.; baseline, 377.9 ± 34.5 pg/ml; nadir, 294.6 ± 28.3 pg/ml (60 min); P < 0.01). Conversely, i.m. glucagon elicited an increase in GH (baseline, 1.5 ± 0.4 μg/l; peak, 14.2 ± 2.7 μg/l (180 min); P < 0.01) and cortisol concentrations (baseline, 452.6 ± 35.2 nmol/l; peak, 622.1 ± 44 nmol/l (180 min); P < 0.01). The changes in ghrelin concentration at both 120 and 180 min were still significant after correction for glucose and insulin (P < 0.05).

Conclusions: We show that i.m. glucagon decreases ghrelin significantly. Therefore, the already known stimulatory effects of i.m. glucagon on cortisol and GH are not mediated by a change in ghrelin concentrations. The mechanisms underlying the ghrelin suppression after i.m. glucagon are unlikely to include glucose or insulin variations and need to be further elucidated.