Objective: To illustrate the marked differences between classical endocrinology that distributes hormones to all tissues of the body through the bloodstream and the science of intracrinology, whereby each cell of each peripheral tissue makes a small and appropriate amount of estrogens and androgens from the inactive precursor dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), DHEA being mainly of adrenal origin. Because only the inactivated sex steroids are released in the blood, influence in the other tissues is avoided.
Methods: Molecular biology has been used for the identification/characterization of the steroid-forming and steroid-inactivating enzymes, whereas steroids have been measured by mass spectrometry-based assays validated according to the US Food and Drug Administration guidelines.
Results: Evolution over 500 million years has engineered the expression of about 30 steroid-forming enzymes specific for each peripheral tissue. These tissue-specific enzymes transform DHEA into the appropriate small amounts of estrogens and androgens for a strictly intracellular and local action. Humans, contrary to species below primates, also possess intracellular steroid-inactivating enzymes, especially glucuronyl transferases and sulfotransferases, which inactivate the estrogens and androgens at their local site of formation, thus preventing the release of a biologically significant amount of estradiol (E2) and testosterone in the circulation. Since DHEA becomes the unique source of sex steroids after menopause, serum E2 and testosterone are thus maintained at low biologically inactive concentrations with no activity outside the cells of origin. DHEA secretion, unfortunately, starts decreasing at about the age of 30 at various rates in different women. Moreover, there is no feedback mechanism to increase DHEA secretion when the concentration of serum DHEA decreases. Considering this mechanism is unique to the human, it seems logical to replace DHEA locally in women suffering from vulvovaginal atrophy (genitourinary syndrome of menopause). The clinical data obtained using a small dose of intravaginal DHEA (prasterone) confirm the mechanisms of intracrinology mentioned above which avoid biologically significant changes in serum E2 and testosterone.
Conclusions: The symptoms and signs of vulvovaginal atrophy (genitourinary syndrome of menopause) can be successfully treated by the intravaginal administration of DHEA without safety concerns. This strategy exclusively replaces in the vagina the missing cell-specific intracellular estrogens and androgens. This approach avoids systemic exposure and the potential risks of estrogen exposure for the tissues other than the vagina.