Synthetic progestins are used by millions of women as contraceptives and in hormone replacement therapy (HRT), although their molecular mechanisms of action are not well understood. The importance of investigating these mechanisms, as compared to those of progesterone, has been highlighted by clinical evidence showing that medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA), a first generation progestin, increases the risk of breast cancer and coronary heart disease in HRT users. A diverse range of later generation progestins with varying structures and pharmacological properties is available for therapeutic use and it is becoming clear that different progestins elicit beneficial and adverse effects to different extents. These differences in biological activity are likely to be due to many factors including variations in dose, metabolism, pharmacokinetics, bioavailability, and regulation of, and/or binding, to serum-binding proteins and steroidogenic enzymes. Since the intracellular effects on gene expression and cell signaling of steroids are mediated via intracellular steroid receptors, differential actions via the progesterone and other steroid receptors and their isoforms, are likely to be the major cause of differential intracellular actions of progestins. Since many progestins bind not only to the progesterone receptor, but also to the glucocorticoid, androgen, mineralocorticoid, and possibly the estrogen receptors, it is plausible that synthetic progestins exert therapeutic actions as well as side-effects via some of these receptors. Here we review the molecular mechanisms of intracellular actions of old (MPA, norethisterone, levonorgestrel, gestodene) vs. new (drospirenone, dienogest, trimegestone) generation progestins, via steroid receptors.
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