Effect of insulin on AKR1C3 expression in female adipose tissue: in-vivo and in-vitro study of adipose androgen generation in polycystic ovary syndrome

Lancet. 2015 Feb 26:385 Suppl 1:S16. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(15)60331-2.


Background: Insulin resistance and hyperandrogenism are the cardinal features of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Women with insulin receptor (INSR) mutations develop severe hyperandrogenism secondary to hyperinsulinaemia. We hypothesised that insulin might drive adipose testosterone generation from androstenedione through aldoketoredutase type 3 (AKR1C3) in women with insulin resistance. Here we assessed the effect of insulin on AKR1C3 activity in vivo and in vitro.

Methods: Ten women with PCOS, ten healthy controls, and three women with INSR mutations underwent dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) challenge; serum androgens were measured every 30 min for 4 h after ingestion of 100 mg DHEA. Additionally, paired subcutaneous and omental fat samples were obtained during abdominal surgery from 38 women. AKR1C3 expression was measured by real-time PCR. Serum steroids and cultured cell media androgens were measured with liquid chromatography tandem mass spectrometry.

Findings: Women with PCOS had higher androstenedione concentrations than did controls and women with INSR mutations (p=0·01 and p=0·005, respectively). However, area under the curve for testosterone was higher in women with INSR mutations after DHEA than in women with PCOS and controls (874·2 [SE 242] vs 425 [136] and 375·2 [109], p<0·001 for both). AKR1C3 mRNA expression was significantly higher in subcutaneous than in omental adipose tissue (p=0·004). AKR1C3 expression correlated positively with body-mass index in subcutaneous fat (Spearman correlation=0·51, p=0·006). Insulin significantly increased AKR1C3 expression in differentiated subcutaneous adipocytes (p=0·04). Incubation with insulin significantly increased testosterone generation from androstenedione in cultured subcutaneous cell media compared with controls (p<0·001).

Interpretation: We have found in-vivo and in-vitro evidence of modulation of AKR1C3 activity by insulin in PCOS and in women with INSR mutations. Insulin seems to drive adipose androgen generation by increasing AKR1C3 activity in female subcutaneous adipose tissue. Selective AKR1C3 inhibition might offer a novel therapeutic target to reduce androgen burden and improve metabolic phenotype in PCOS.

Funding: Wellcome Trust.