Apoptosis, or programmed cell death, is an important mechanism for the regulation of embryonic development and tissue homeostasis. It is coordinated by a number of molecules including the Fas-Fas ligand (FasL) system and bcl-2. The purpose of this study was to characterize the expression of these molecules in human oocytes and cumulus cells from gonadotropin-stimulated human ovaries and to determine whether the presence of soluble Fas (sFas), soluble FasL, or interferon-γ in follicular fluid (FF) correlated with apoptosis in cumulus cells, oocyte maturation, and embryo quality. Levels of sFas were significantly higher in FF containing immature oocytes compared with those containing atretic oocytes (P < 0.05; FF containing mature oocytes had highly variable levels of sFas. Levels of sFas in FF did not correlate with either fertilization, embryo quality resulting from fertilized oocytes, or apoptosis rate in cumulus cells. Fas was expressed in both unfertilized oocytes and cumulus cells, whereas FasL expression was not usually detected in these cell types. Messenger RNA for bcl-2 was detectable in both freshly isolated oocytes and cumulus cells but was not demonstrable following 24 h of culture that coincided with a significant increase of apoptosis in cumulus cells. Our results indicate that soluble forms of the Fas-FasL system are present in FF from gonadotropin-stimulated human ovaries and suggest that this system may play a role in preventing oocyte atresia during folliculogenesis but is probably not important for apoptotic events in cumulus cells and oocytes after fertilizaton failure. Apoptosis in this case may be facilitated by the downregulation of bcl-2. Further studies on the expression of these molecules in follicles containing atretic oocytes and immature oocytes are needed to confirm this new hypothesis.
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