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Characterisation of the cancer-associated glucocorticoid system: key role of 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenase type 2

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  • Nicola Cirillo
  • David J Morgan
  • Maria Carmela Pedicillo
  • Antonio Celentano
  • Lorenzo Lo Muzio
  • Michael J McCullough
  • Stephen S Prime
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)984-993
Number of pages10
JournalBritish Journal of Cancer
Issue number7
Early online date10 Aug 2017
DateAccepted/In press - 3 Jul 2017
DateE-pub ahead of print - 10 Aug 2017
DatePublished (current) - 26 Sep 2017


BACKGROUND: Recent studies have shown that production of cortisol not only takes place in several non-adrenal peripheral tissues such as epithelial cells but, also, the local inter-conversion between cortisone and cortisol is regulated by the 11β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenases (11β-HSDs). However, little is known about the activity of this non-adrenal glucocorticoid system in cancers.

METHODS: The presence of a functioning glucocorticoid system was assessed in human skin squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and melanoma and further, in 16 epithelial cell lines from 8 different tissue types using ELISA, western blotting and immunofluorescence. 11β-HSD2 was inhibited both pharmacologically and by siRNA technology. Naïve CD8(+) T cells were used to test the paracrine effects of cancer-derived cortisol on the immune system in vitro. Functional assays included cell-cell adhesion and cohesion in two- and three-dimensional models. Immunohistochemical data of 11β-HSD expression were generated using tissue microarrays of 40 cases of human SCCs as well as a database featuring 315 cancer cases from 15 different tissues.

RESULTS: We show that cortisol production is a common feature of malignant cells and has paracrine functions. Cortisol production correlated with the magnitude of glucocorticoid receptor (GR)-dependent inhibition of tumour-specific CD8(+) T cells in vitro. 11β-HSDs were detectable in human skin SCCs and melanoma. Analyses of publicly available protein expression data of 11β-HSDs demonstrated that 11β-HSD1 and -HSD2 were dysregulated in the majority (73%) of malignancies. Pharmacological manipulation of 11β-HSD2 activity by 18β-glycyrrhetinic acid (GA) and silencing by specific siRNAs modulated the bioavailability of cortisol. Cortisol also acted in an autocrine manner and promoted cell invasion in vitro and cell-cell adhesion and cohesion in two- and three-dimensional models. Immunohistochemical analyses using tissue microarrays showed that expression of 11β-HSD2 was significantly reduced in human SCCs of the skin.

CONCLUSIONS: The results demonstrate evidence of a cancer-associated glucocorticoid system and show for the first time, the functional significance of cancer-derived cortisol in tumour progression.

    Research areas

  • 11-beta-Hydroxysteroid Dehydrogenase Type 1, 11-beta-Hydroxysteroid Dehydrogenase Type 2, Adrenocorticotropic Hormone, CD8-Positive T-Lymphocytes, Carcinoma, Squamous Cell, Cell Adhesion, Cell Proliferation, Cortisone, Culture Media, Conditioned, Down-Regulation, Epithelial Cells, Gene Silencing, Glycyrrhetinic Acid, HT29 Cells, Humans, Hydrocortisone, Keratinocytes, MCF-7 Cells, Melanoma, Paracrine Communication, Receptors, Glucocorticoid, Skin Neoplasms, Journal Article

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    Rights statement: This is the author accepted manuscript (AAM). The final published version (version of record) is available online via Springer Nature at Please refer to any applicable terms of use of the publisher.

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    Licence: CC BY-NC-SA


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