The blood-testis barrier and its implications for male contraception

Pharmacol Rev. 2012 Jan;64(1):16-64. doi: 10.1124/pr.110.002790. Epub 2011 Oct 28.


The blood-testis barrier (BTB) is one of the tightest blood-tissue barriers in the mammalian body. It divides the seminiferous epithelium into the basal and the apical (adluminal) compartments. Meiosis I and II, spermiogenesis, and spermiation all take place in a specialized microenvironment behind the BTB in the apical compartment, but spermatogonial renewal and differentiation and cell cycle progression up to the preleptotene spermatocyte stage take place outside of the BTB in the basal compartment of the epithelium. However, the BTB is not a static ultrastructure. Instead, it undergoes extensive restructuring during the seminiferous epithelial cycle of spermatogenesis at stage VIII to allow the transit of preleptotene spermatocytes at the BTB. Yet the immunological barrier conferred by the BTB cannot be compromised, even transiently, during the epithelial cycle to avoid the production of antibodies against meiotic and postmeiotic germ cells. Studies have demonstrated that some unlikely partners, namely adhesion protein complexes (e.g., occludin-ZO-1, N-cadherin-β-catenin, claudin-5-ZO-1), steroids (e.g., testosterone, estradiol-17β), nonreceptor protein kinases (e.g., focal adhesion kinase, c-Src, c-Yes), polarity proteins (e.g., PAR6, Cdc42, 14-3-3), endocytic vesicle proteins (e.g., clathrin, caveolin, dynamin 2), and actin regulatory proteins (e.g., Eps8, Arp2/3 complex), are working together, apparently under the overall influence of cytokines (e.g., transforming growth factor-β3, tumor necrosis factor-α, interleukin-1α). In short, a "new" BTB is created behind spermatocytes in transit while the "old" BTB above transiting cells undergoes timely degeneration, so that the immunological barrier can be maintained while spermatocytes are traversing the BTB. We also discuss recent findings regarding the molecular mechanisms by which environmental toxicants (e.g., cadmium, bisphenol A) induce testicular injury via their initial actions at the BTB to elicit subsequent damage to germ-cell adhesion, thereby leading to germ-cell loss, reduced sperm count, and male infertility or subfertility. Moreover, we also critically evaluate findings in the field regarding studies on drug transporters in the testis and discuss how these influx and efflux pumps regulate the entry of potential nonhormonal male contraceptives to the apical compartment to exert their effects. Collectively, these findings illustrate multiple potential targets are present at the BTB for innovative contraceptive development and for better delivery of drugs to alleviate toxicant-induced reproductive dysfunction in men.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Blood-Testis Barrier / immunology
  • Blood-Testis Barrier / metabolism*
  • Blood-Testis Barrier / physiology
  • Blood-Testis Barrier / ultrastructure
  • Contraceptive Agents, Male / administration & dosage
  • Contraceptive Agents, Male / pharmacokinetics*
  • Drug Delivery Systems
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones / metabolism
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Models, Biological
  • Sertoli Cells / drug effects
  • Sertoli Cells / immunology
  • Sertoli Cells / metabolism
  • Sertoli Cells / ultrastructure
  • Spermatogenesis / drug effects


  • Contraceptive Agents, Male
  • Gonadal Steroid Hormones