Androgens, in concert with lactogenic hormones, contribute to the maintenance of function of the corpus luteum (CL) in pregnant rats. Whereas some of the androgenic actions in the CL are clearly mediated by intracrine conversion to estrogen, pure androgenic effects are also implicated in the regulation of this transient endocrine gland. In this report, we have established, to our knowledge for the first time, the expression of androgen receptor (AR) mRNA and protein throughout gestation in the rat CL. We have found that the AR remains expressed in the CL of gestation on Day 4 postpartum and becomes expressed in the newly formed CL after postpartum ovulation. An AR immunoreactive protein was identified in the CL of pregnancy as well as in prostate and epididymis, which were used as positive controls. The luteal AR protein had mainly nuclear localization, yet some diffuse cytoplasmic staining was also observed. Moreover, we have established that androstenedione, the main circulating androgen in pregnant rats, significantly reduces the decline in luteal weight observed during postpartum structural regression. This effect was correlated with a decrease in the number of cells undergoing apoptosis and with enhanced levels of circulating progesterone. In addition, in vivo administration of androstenedione delayed the occurrence of DNA fragmentation in postpartum CL incubated in serum-free conditions. Finally, we have shown that the interference with apoptosis in vitro elicited by androstenedione is accompanied by an increased capacity of the CL to secrete progesterone. In summary, the results of this study have established that the rat CL expresses AR throughout pregnancy and after parturition, and they have defined a potential role for androstenedione in opposing postpartum luteal regression through inhibition of apoptosis and stimulation of progesterone production.
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