Adverse effects of endocrine disruptors on the foetal testis development: focus on the phthalates

Folia Histochem Cytobiol. 2009;47(5):S67-74. doi: 10.2478/v10042-009-0056-5.


There are great concerns about the increasing incidence of abnormalities in male reproductive function. Human sperm counts have markedly dropped and the rate of testicular cancer has clearly augmented over the past four decades. Moreover, the prevalence rates of cryptorchidism and hypospadias are also probably increasing. It has been hypothesized that all these adverse trends in male reproduction result from abnormalities in the development of the testis during foetal and neonatal life. Furthermore, many recent epidemiological, clinical and experimental data suggest that these male reproductive disorders could be due to the effects of xenobiotics termed endocrine disruptors, which are becoming more and more concentrated and prevalent in our environment. Among these endocrine disruptors, we chose to focus this review on the phthalates for different reasons: 1) they are widespread in the environment; 2) their concentrations in many human biological fluids have been measured; 3) the experimental data using rodent models suggesting a reprotoxicity are numerous and are the most convincing; 4) their deleterious effects on the in vivo and in vitro development and function of the rat foetal testis have been largely studied; 5) some epidemiological data in humans suggest a reprotoxic effect at environmental concentrations at least during neonatal life. However, the direct effects of phthalates on human foetal testis have never been explored. Thus, as we did for the rat in the 1990s, we recently developed and validated an organ culture system which allows maintenance of the development of the different cell types of human foetal testis. In this system, addition of 10-4 M MEHP (mono-2-ethylhexyl phthalate), the most produced phthalate, had no effect on basal or LH-stimulated production of testosterone, but it reduced the number of germ cells by increasing their apoptosis, without modification of their proliferation. This is the first experimental demonstration that phthalates alter the development of the foetal testis in humans. Using our organotypic culture system, we and others are currently investigating the effect of MEHP in the mouse and the rat, and it will be interesting to compare the results between these species to analyse the relevance of toxicological tests based on rodent models.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Endocrine Disruptors*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Testicular Neoplasms
  • Testis* / metabolism
  • Testosterone


  • Endocrine Disruptors
  • Testosterone