Stem Leydig Cells in the Adult Testis: Characterization, Regulation and Potential Applications

Panpan Chen, Barry R Zirkin, Haolin Chen
Endocrine Reviews 2020 February 1, 41 (1)
Androgen deficiency (hypogonadism) affects males of all ages. Testosterone replacement therapy (TRT) is effective in restoring serum testosterone and relieving symptoms. TRT, however, is reported to have possible adverse effects in part because administered testosterone is not produced in response to the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal (HPG) axis. Progress in stem cell biology offers potential alternatives for treating hypogonadism. Adult Leydig cells (ALCs) are generated by stem Leydig cells (SLCs) during puberty. SLCs persist in the adult testis. Considerable progress has been made in the identification, isolation, expansion and differentiation of SLCs in vitro. In addition to forming ALCs, SLCs are multipotent, with the ability to give rise to all 3 major cell lineages of typical mesenchymal stem cells, including osteoblasts, adipocytes, and chondrocytes. Several regulatory factors, including Desert hedgehog and platelet-derived growth factor, have been reported to play key roles in the proliferation and differentiation of SLCs into the Leydig lineage. In addition, stem cells from several nonsteroidogenic sources, including embryonic stem cells, induced pluripotent stem cells, mature fibroblasts, and mesenchymal stem cells from bone marrow, adipose tissue, and umbilical cord have been transdifferentiated into Leydig-like cells under a variety of induction protocols. ALCs generated from SLCs in vitro, as well as Leydig-like cells, have been successfully transplanted into ALC-depleted animals, restoring serum testosterone levels under HPG control. However, important questions remain, including: How long will the transplanted cells continue to function? Which induction protocol is safest and most effective? For translational purposes, more work is needed with primate cells, especially human.

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