Molecular basis of androgen insensitivity

A O Brinkmann
Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology 2001 June 20, 179 (1): 105-9
Androgens are important steroid hormones for expression of the male phenotype. They have characteristic roles during male sexual differentiation, during development and maintenance of secondary male characteristics, and during the initiation and maintenance of spermatogenesis. The two most important androgens in this respect are testosterone and 5 alpha-dihydrotestosterone. Each androgen has its own specific role during male sexual differentiation, testosterone is involved in the development and differentiation of Wolffian duct derived structures, whereas 5 alpha-dihydrotestosterone, a metabolite of testosterone, is the active ligand in the urogenital sinus and tubercle and their derived structures. The actions of androgens are mediated by the androgen receptor. This ligand dependent transcription factor belongs to the superfamily of nuclear receptors, including those for the other steroid hormones. The androgen receptor gene is located on the X-chromosome at Xq11--12 and codes for a protein with a molecular mass of approximately 110 kDa. Only one androgen receptor cDNA has been identified sofar, despite two different ligands. It is generally accepted that defects in the androgen receptor gene prevent the normal development of both internal and external male structures in 46, XY individuals. The end-organ resistance to androgens has been designated as androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) and is distinct from other forms of male pseudohermaphroditism like 17 beta-hydroxy-steroid dehydrogenase type 3 deficiency, leydig cell hypoplasia due to inactivating LH receptor mutations or 5 alpha-reductase type 2 deficiency. Furthermore, two additional pathological situations are associated with abnormal androgen receptor structure and function -- spinal and bulbar muscular atrophy (SBMA, or Kennedy's disease) and prostate cancer. In the AR gene, four different types of mutations have been detected in DNA from individuals with AIS -- (i) single point mutations resulting in amino acid substitutions or premature stopcodons; (ii) nucleotide insertions or deletions most often leading to a frame shift and premature termination; (iii) complete or partial gene deletions; and (iv) intronic mutations in either splice donor or acceptor sites, which affect the splicing of AR RNA. The main phenotypic characteristics of individuals with the complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (CAIS) are, female external genitalia, a short, blind ending vagina, the absence of Wolffian duct derived structures, the absence of a prostate, development of gynecomastia and the absence of pubic and axillary hair. Usually testosterone levels are elevated at the time of puberty, while also elevated LH levels are found. In the partial androgen insensitivity syndrome (PAIS) several different phenotypes are evident, ranging from individuals with predominantly a female appearance to persons with ambiguous genitalia, or individuals with a predominantly male phenotype. At puberty, elevated LH, testosterone and estradiol levels are observed. Individuals with mild symptoms of undervirilization (mild androgen insensitivity syndrome (MAIS)) and infertility have been described as well. Phenotypic variation between individuals in different families has been described for several mutations. However, in cases of CAIS no phenotypic variation has been described within one single family, in contrast to families with individuals with PAIS. In general AIS, can be routinely analyzed and more than 150 different mutations have been reported now. Differential diagnosis of AIS is possible with syndromes presenting with almost similar phenotypes but with a completely different molecular cause.

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