STUDY QUESTION: What is the temporal activity and the concentration in follicular fluid (FF) of the anti-inflammatory steroid cortisol during the ovulatory process in humans?
SUMMARY ANSWER: Intrafollicular concentrations of cortisol become massively upregulated close to ovulation concomitant with an exceptionally high biological activity securing a timely and efficient termination of inflammatory processes.
WHAT IS KNOWN ALREADY: Ovulation has been described as a local, controlled inflammatory process resulting in the degeneration of the follicle wall which facilitate oocyte extrusion. Ovulation also affects the glucocorticoid metabolism of granulosa cells (GCs) and although de novo synthesis of cortisol only occurs in the adrenal cortex, the mid-cycle surge has been shown to induce a change from high expression of HSD11B2, inactivating cortisol to cortisone, to high expression of HSD11B1 which reversibly catalyses cortisol production from cortisone. Furthermore, high concentrations of progesterone and 17OH-progesterone within follicles may cause dislodging of cortisol from cortisol binding protein (CBP) thereby activating the biological activity of cortisol.
STUDY DESIGN, SIZE, DURATION: This prospective cohort study included 50 women undergoing fertility treatment according to a standard antagonist protocol at a university hospital-affiliated fertility clinic in Denmark.
PARTICIPANTS/MATERIALS, SETTING, METHODS: Women donated FF and GCs from one follicle for research purpose aspirated at one of four time points during the process of final maturation of follicles: T = 0 h, T = 12 h, T = 17 h, T = 32 h. A second sample was collected at oocyte pick up at T = 36 h. The concentration of cortisol and cortisone together with a range of sex steroids was measured by LC-MS/MS in FF collected at the five time points mentioned above. Whole genome microarray data, validated by q-PCR analysis, was used to evaluate gene expression of CYP11B1, CYP21A2, HSD11B1, HSD11B2, and NR3C1 in GCs at the same time points.
MAIN RESULTS AND THE ROLE OF CHANCE: The concentration of cortisol was significantly increased from a few nM at 0 h to around 100-140 nM (P ≤ 0.0001) at 32-36 h, whilst cortisone was almost constant from 0 to 17 h at a concentration of between 90 and 100 nM being significantly reduced to 25-40 nM (P ≤ 0.0001) at 32-36 h. This was paralleled by a 690-fold upregulation of HSD11B1 from 0 to 12 h increasing to a more than 20.000-fold change at 36 h. HSD11B2 was quickly downregulated 15- to 20-fold after ovulation induction. Concentrations of progesterone and 17OH-progesterone increased during the ovulatory process to high levels which in essence displaces cortisol from its binding protein CBP due to similar binding affinities. Furthermore, a significant decrease in 11-deoxycortisol expression was seen, but CYP11B1 expression was below detection limit in GCs.
LIMITATIONS, REASONS FOR CAUTION: The study included women undergoing ovarian stimulation and results may differ from the natural cycle. More observations at each specific time point may have strengthened the conclusions. Furthermore, we have not been able to measure the actual active biological concentration of cortisol.
WIDER IMPLICATIONS OF THE FINDINGS: For the first time, this study collectively evaluated the temporal pattern of cortisol and cortisone concentrations during human ovulation, rendering a physiological framework for understanding potential dysregulations in the inflammatory reaction of ovulation.
STUDY FUNDING/COMPETING INTEREST(S): This research was supported by the University Hospital of Copenhagen, Rigshospitalet, and Novo Nordisk Foundation grant number NNF21OC00700556. Interreg V ÔKS through ReproUnion (www.reprounion.eu); Region Zealand Research Foundation. The funders had no role in study design, collection of data, analyses, writing of the article, or the decision to submit it for publication. The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.
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