Sex hormone adjuvant therapy in rheumatoid arthritis

Rheum Dis Clin North Am. 2000 Nov;26(4):881-95. doi: 10.1016/s0889-857x(05)70174-5.


RA is an autoimmune rheumatic disorder resulting from the combination of several predisposing factors, including the relation between epitopes of possible triggering agents and histocompatibility epitopes, the status of the stress response system, and the sex hormone status. Estrogens are implicated as enhancers of humoral immunity, and androgens and progesterone are natural immune suppressors. Sex hormone concentrations have been evaluated in RA patients before glucocorticoid therapy and have frequently been found to be altered, especially in premenopausal women and male patients. In particular, low levels of gonadal and adrenal androgens (testosterone and DHT, DHEA and DHEAS) and a reduced androgen:estrogen ratio have been detected in body fluids (i.e., blood, synovial fluid, smears, saliva) of male and female RA patients. These observations support a possible pathogenic role for the decreased levels of the immune-suppressive androgens. Exposure to environmental estrogens (estrogenic xenobiotics), genetic polymorphisms of genes coding for hormone metabolic enzymes or receptors, and gonadal disturbances related to stress system activation (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical axis) and physiologic hormonal perturbations such as during aging, the menstrual cycle, pregnancy, the postpartum period, and menopause may interfere with the androgen:estrogen ratio. Sex hormones might exert their immune-modulating effects, at least in RA synovitis, because synovial macrophages, monocytes, and lymphocytes possess functional androgen and estrogen receptors and may metabolize gonadal hormones. The molecular basis for sex hormone adjuvant therapy in RA is thus experimentally substantiated. By considering the well-demonstrated immune-suppressive activities exerted by androgens, male hormones and their derivatives seem to be the most promising therapeutic approach. Recent studies have shown positive effects of androgen replacement therapy at least in male RA patients, particularly as adjuvant treatment. Interestingly, the increase in serum androgen metabolism induced by RA treatment with CSA should be regarded as a possible marker of androgen-mediated immune-suppressive activities exerted by CSA, at least in RA and at the level of sensitive target cells and tissues (i.e., synovial macrophages). The absence of altered serum levels of estrogens in RA patients and the reported immune-enhancing properties exerted by female hormones have represented a poor stimulus to test estrogen replacement therapy in RA. The different results obtained with OC use seem to depend on dose-related effects and the different type of response to estrogens in relation to the cytokine balance between Th1 cells (cellular immunity, i.e., RA) and Th2 cells (humoral immunity, i.e., SLE). The androgen replacement obtained directly (i.e., testosterone, DHT, DHEAS) or indirectly (i.e., antiestrogens) may represent a valuable concomitant or adjuvant treatment to be associated with other disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs (i.e., MTX, CSA) in the management of RA.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Androgens / pharmacology
  • Androgens / therapeutic use*
  • Arthritis, Rheumatoid / drug therapy*
  • Chemotherapy, Adjuvant
  • Estrogens / pharmacology
  • Estrogens / therapeutic use*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male


  • Androgens
  • Estrogens