In the present study we characterized in detail the expression of aromatase P450 in leiomyomas to determine the role of in situ estrogen in the growth advantage of leiomyomas. The levels of aromatase P450 transcripts were determined by quantitative RT-PCR to be significantly higher in leiomyomas than in corresponding myometrium. The overexpression of aromatase P450 in leiomyomas was also confirmed by Western blot analysis. The estimated size of immunoreactive aromatase was 58 kDa, similar to that in placenta. To identify a cell type that express aromatase P450 in leiomyomas, histological specimens were stained for aromatase P450 using a polyclonal antibody. Strong immunoreactivity was detected in the cytoplasm of leiomyoma cells, whereas surrounding normal myometrium displayed weak or negative staining. Smooth muscle-like cells in culture obtained from leiomyomas, positive for actin D fiber, possessed immunoreactive granules of aromatase in the cytoplasm. Conversion of androgen to estrogen was effectively stimulated by phorbol myristate acetate and dexamethasone plus interleukin-1beta and was completely abolished by selective inhibitors of aromatase P450 (fadrozole and TZA-2209), but not by inhibitors of 5alpha-reductase (finasteride and flutamide). The apparent Km of androstenedione was 3 nM in the presence of dexamethasone and interleukin-1beta, corresponding to the plasma concentration of androstenedione in women of reproductive age. To determine whether endogenous aromatase P450 plays a role in the growth promotion of leiomyoma cells, we evaluated the cell growth of smooth muscle-like cells treated with various concentrations of estrogen and androgen using a WST-1 assay. Treatment with testosterone (10(-8) and 10(-7) M) and androstenedione (10(-8) and 10(-7) M) stimulated the growth of smooth muscle-like cells obtained from leiomyomas to the same extent as estradiol (10(-10)-10(-7) M), whereas dihydrotestosterone (10(-11)-10(-8) M) did not. The stimulatory effect of testosterone on cell growth was again abolished by cotreatment with fadrozole. The level of estradiol in the medium of testosterone (10(-8) M)-treated smooth muscle-like cells was 10(-11) M, which was 1 order lower than the minimum concentration of estradiol necessary to promote cell growth (10(-10) M). This indicates that estradiol synthesized in leiomyomas promotes their growth via an autocrine/intracrine mechanism. We conclude that myometrial cells of leiomyomas overexpress aromatase P450 and are able to synthesize sufficient estrogen to accelerate their own cell growth. Overexpression of aromatase P450 may play a role in the growth advantage of leiomyoma tissue over surrounding myometrium via an autocrine/intracrine mechanism.