The Journal of Molecular Endocrinology is the only Society-owned basic science journal dedicated to looking at hormones at the cellular and molecular level. In a series of blog posts, we look back at some of the most cutting-edge research published by our members in our journals. This first piece was written by Douglas Gibson (@douglasagibson), a postdoctoral research at University of Edinburgh.
Remember that members can now publish in JOE, JME and ERC free of charge!
We often think of hormones as ‘male’ or ‘female’ because of how they shape the features we associate with each sex. So androgens – the ‘male’ hormones – might make you think of ‘manly’ things like body hair, muscles and deep voices, but what if I told you that they play an important role in women becoming pregnant too?
It’s difficult to separate androgens from their macho reputation, particularly when examples of androgen excess in women, such as in athletic doping, also produce masculinizing effects. Despite this, androgens have long been known to be important in controlling many processes in female physiology. Indeed, androgens can be detected at significant concentrations in the blood of women and in some cases may even exceed those of men! However, although androgens are abundant in the blood they are usually only activated in specific tissues when they are needed. In this clever way they don’t have widespread and uncontrolled effects.
One surprising place where androgens were recently found to be activated is inside the womb. Every month, the structure of the womb lining – known as the endometrium – is reorganised to create an environment that can support and sustain pregnancy. However, without the right hormonal signals, the endometrium will not provide the conditions required for a fertilised egg to implant.
Recent studies have found that hormones produced inside the womb play a pivotal role in the early stages of pregnancy. It was previously thought this vital role was carried out solely by hormone signals from the ovary but new research has found that ‘male’ hormones (androgens) help to prepare the womb lining to encourage a successful pregnancy.
In our study, we wanted to understand how the signals inside the womb lining affected the early stages of pregnancy. In fact, we found that androgens can act in two key ways; by acting as a direct signal in the womb but also by being converted into ‘female’ hormones (estrogens) in the early stages of pregnancy. We found that estrogens within the womb signal to cells that control blood vessel development which is essential for promoting exchange of nutrients between mother and baby.
So amazingly, androgens seem to provide a delicate balance to control key changes in the womb in pregnancy. However as fewer of these key hormones are produced as women age, this could partly explain why some older women find it difficult to conceive. Our research is now focussing on how changes in the availability of androgens can affect the way the womb lining prepares for pregnancy. We hope to be able to apply this new understanding to improve fertility treatments which in the future may mean that older women seeking motherhood may have a better chance of successfully conceiving.