Estrogen levels drop in the brains of women who have gone through menopause or had surgeries to remove their ovaries. This hormone deficiency can lead to hot flashes, depression, trouble sleeping, and memory deficits. Hormone replacement therapies can improve women’s quality of life, but taking estrogen has its own problems, such as increased risk of breast and uterine cancer.
A new compound could avoid the source of these side effects—the action of estrogen on cells outside the brain (Sci. Transl. Med. 2015, DOI: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aab1290).
Laszlo Prokai of the University of North Texas Health Science Center and coworkers identified 10β,17β-dihydroxyestra-1,4-dien-3-one (DHED), which is converted to the main human estrogen, 17β-estradiol, in the brain and not elsewhere in the body. An enzyme expressed only in the brain reduces DHED to estradiol.
The researchers injected DHED into female rodents without ovaries and showed that estrogen levels jumped in the brain but not in other tissues. Then, through a series of experiments, they demonstrated that the compound had only neurological effects.
“It’s exactly the right strategy for avoiding the cancer risks and gaining the benefits in the brain,” says Bruce S. McEwen, a neuroendocrinologist at Rockefeller University. He thinks the next step is to show that the compound doesn’t have toxicity problems so that clinical trials in people can start.
The researchers are planning such studies in hopes of moving the compound “from the bench to the bedside,” Prokai says.